Indigenous

What if the Mandalorian's armour was birch bark instead of beskar? An Algonquin artist brings that to life

What would it look like if the Mandalorian was Indigenous? Christal Ratt's birch bark armour helps to answer that question, with the Star Wars-inspired artwork taking home a second-place ribbon at the Heard Guild Museum’s 2022 Indian Market and Fair in Phoenix, Ariz.

‘If we had superheroes, what would they wear?’ artist Christal Ratt asked herself

Christal Ratt brought home a second-place ribbon from the Heard Guild Museum’s 2022 Indian Market and Fair in Phoenix, Ariz. (Submitted by Christal Ratt, Natasha Thompson)

What would it look like if the Mandalorian was Indigenous?

For Anishinaabe (Algonquin) artist Christal Ratt, that meant swapping out the Star Wars character's signature beskar steel armour for wiigwas, the word for birch bark in the Algonquin language.

"I really like the Mandalorian series and thought I should make it Indigenous — make it as a tribute to land defenders and all the people that are out there on the front lines," said Ratt, who is a member of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in western Quebec.

The helmet includes shades of orange to honour residential school survivors. (Submitted by Christal Ratt)

Since 2019, members of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake have enforced their own moratorium on sports moose hunting in the province's La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve over concerns about a decline in the herd's population. 

That's why Ratt etched an image of a moose out on the land right in the centre of the chest plate.

And while it may not be able to stop lightsabers, the wearable piece of art also includes a birch bark helmet, with quilled Woodland florals and different shades of orange to honour residential school survivors from her community. 

The piece is called Shemaginish, which means warrior. 

"If we had superheroes, what would they wear?" Ratt said when asked about what sparked the idea for the piece. "I was just thinking of all of that [and] to see how I can represent our people."

Ratt is a member of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in western Quebec. (Natasha Thompson)

Handed down through the generations

For Algonquin communities, birch bark has traditionally been used to make canoes, baskets, moose calls and cradleboards. Ratt has incorporated the material into jewelry, bags, dolls and even a facemask. 

"I really want to keep working with the wiigwas, because it's something that people have always done," she said. "I just want to be one of those people that keeps those traditions going."

Working with birch bark is a skill that's been passed down from generation to generation in her family. Ratt's grandparents made canoes, and she harvests birch bark with her parents.

"It's always been very important to our people," said her mother, Beatrice Ratt. "I'm very proud of her that she can do all those things. When we first saw what she made, I was very surprised."

Ratt and her mother, Beatrice Ratt. (Submitted by Christal Ratt)

Recognition for her work

Earlier this month, Ratt brought the suit to the Heard Guild Museum's 2022 Indian Market and Fair in Phoenix, Ariz.

She picked up a second-place ribbon in the market's juried competition in the diverse art forms category for personal attire and accessories without a predominance of beads or quillwork.

"I'm really new to the art market world and the juried competition; I started in 2018," Ratt said. "I've been really thankful that so far in every market that I've been to, I've won a ribbon [and] this one is just extra special because it was a whole wiigwas piece."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec. Email her at kanhehsiio.deer@cbc.ca.

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