Mi'kmaw designer makes gown with birchbark bodice, hopes to motivate youth to learn about culture

Mi'kmaw designer Sgoagani Wecenisqon created a birchbark dress featured in an Indigenous fashion show in Fredericton. She hopes her designs inspire youth and non-Indigenous folks to learn about the culture.

Gown also features traditional Mi'kmaw designs

Model Rosalie Labillois, left, wears a gown with a birchbark bodice created by Sgoagani Wecenisqon, right, at a fashion show in Fredericton last weekend. (Submitted by Sgoagani Wecenisqon)

After sitting in storage since 2019, a birchbark gown finally found the spotlight this past weekend at an Indigenous fashion show in New Brunswick.

Sgoagani Wecenisqon designed the piece that features a birchbark bodice with Mi'kmaw designs sewn in. It also features lace floral details on the gown's long black skirt. 

Wecenisqon, who is Mik'maw from Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, started designing only a few years ago. She hopes her work inspires the younger generation to learn more about their culture. 

"I want to give that back to a lot of the youth who don't really know much of that," she said. 

"I think by constantly recreating and remaking new things with these traditional materials, [that] will inspire a lot of our youth to jump in and try to learn more about their culture."

The original sketch of the birchbark dress. (Submitted by Sgoagani Wecenisqon)

Along with youth, Wecenisqon said she hopes her designs will also inspire non-Indigenous people to learn about her culture. 

She herself learned from other creators while making the dress.

"I had no experience working with birchbark," she said.

"Never did the quill work. I was always so amazed by it."

In total, it took her about three weeks to create the bodice, plus more time for the rest of the dress. 

"I was so happy that people love it just as much as I did creating it," she said.

Comfortable and lightweight

Ashley Sanipass from Indian Island, N.B., gave Wecenisqon a roll of birchbark and said she plans on showing her how to gather it as well.

She said the dress is something she has not seen before. 

"Sgoagani has such a talent for art and what she sees," Sanipass said.

"When you're working with natural material like that, and to include it into fashion, I think that right there is Indigenous fashion. She's literally using something from the land and creating a dress out of it."

Model Rosalie Labillois in the birchbark dress designed by Sgoagani Wecenisqon. (Submitted by Sgoagani Wecenisqon)

First-time model Rosalie Labillois from Eel River Bar First Nation wore the dress on the runway at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. 

Labillois said it was comfortable and lightweight, and not too stiff.

"I really just thought about how we're challenging these colonized, or European views of fashion and standards of beauty, and really redefining our own," she said.

Most of all though, she said she felt empowered wearing it.

"I am an Indigenous woman, and this is how I'm built," she said.

"I may not see a lot of people who look like me on the runway, but I could definitely be that person to show somebody else and be that representation. I feel like that really helped boost my confidence." 

Wecenisqon has other items in the works, and plans on continuing to use traditional materials.


Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.