Number of Indigenous art 'knock-offs' for sale in Yellowknife shocks Dene designer

A Dene fashion designer from Lutselk'e says she's appalled by the number of Indigenous art knock-offs for sale in Yellowknife stores. Tishna Marlowe says the appropriation of Dene and Inuit art in the city is rampant and more needs to be done to stop it.
Dene fashion designer Tishna Marlowe (left) stands next to a model wearing one of her formal wear designs. (Submitted by Tishna Marlowe)

A Dene fashion designer from Lutselk'e, N.W.T., is appalled by the number of what she calls Indigenous art "knock-offs" for sale in Yellowknife stores.

Tishna Marlowe is the designer behind the Six Red Beads fashion label based in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Marlowe says the appropriation of Dene and Inuit art in the N.W.T. capital is rampant. She points to a non-Indigenous seamstress making and selling Dene-style parkas as one of the worst examples of cultural appropriation she's seen yet.

A store in Yellowknife selling Dene-style parkas made by a non-Indigenous seamstress. Marlowe says she's appalled about the appropriation of Dene and Inuit art in the city. (Hilary Bird CBC)

"It is quite shocking," Marlowe said.

"It's hundreds of years of Indigenous knowledge of patterns being passed down. What right do they have to take those patterns that they weren't even gifted and then replicate them and produce in mass quantities?"

The owner of the store where the parkas in question are sold could not be reached for comment.

CBC News discovered many shops in Yellowknife selling Indigenous-style souvenirs often made in China.

High prices a concern

Sue Ha is the manager of Northern Souvenir and Gifts. She says she struggles to get enough northern art to fill her shelves.

Made in China hide pouches being labelled as "Native medicine pouches" are for sale in Yellowknife stores. (Hilary Bird CBC)

"I try to sell a lot of things made in Yellowknife. Anyone who makes it, I want it. But the tourists sometimes think the prices are too high."

That's the problem, Marlowe said, with selling locally made pieces next to knock-offs.

"The north has so many beautiful Indigenous artists that aren't being valued or showcased because the cost of making this art is so high."

"That's why these replicas are being bought over the real stuff."

Dolls depicting North American Indigenous people that say they are made in China are for sale in some Yellowknife stores. (Hilary Bird CBC)

The government of the Northwest Territories says it's trying to make it easier for consumers to identify locally made products. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment runs a marketing initiative that puts the NWT Arts tag on crafts and designs made in the territory. The tag often names the artist and which community he or she is from.

"This mark of authenticity ensures your purchase was handmade made by a registered artist of the NWT Arts Program and helps support this sustainable, local industry," the program's website states.

Marlowe said it's a good first step but she hopes the government will also create an "Indigenous made" tag so consumers can be sure the art they're buying hasn't been appropriated.

"When you see an Indigenous woman in her Indigenous ware, a lot of love and concepts, techniques [and] teachings go into those clothes. A lot of people aren't paying attention to it."