By: Stephanie Davoli
Justine Woods on reclaiming her Aabitaawikwe identity through her relationship with land, life and love
For many Indigenous artists, it’s nearly impossible to create — and to simply live — authentically and truthfully without acknowledging the realities of colonization.
This is the case for Justine Woods, an Aabitaawikwe designer, garment artist, and creative scholar. Woods is a 2018 fashion design graduate from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly known as Ryerson University) and has a master’s degree in interdisciplinary art, media and design from OCAD University. She is presently back at TMU where she’s a PhD candidate in media and design innovation with a focus on Indigenous fashion practices.
As a member of the Georgian Bay Métis community, and someone with a strong passion for art and design, Woods has spent countless hours examining the connection between her adoration for fashion and her Indigenous roots.
A Love for Her Homeland
“My work and research is entirely informed by how I move and live around the world with respect to my Indigeneity,” said Woods. “Spirituality, a relationship to the land that I come from and stories are essentially what inspires my work.”
This worldview influenced Woods’ 2021 thesis exhibition for her master’s degree. For this collection, Woods created several garment and beadwork constructed pieces that centred around the “praxis of decolonial love.”
A quilted duck vest from Justin Woods’ 2021 thesis collection in Tiny, Ontario, photographed by Lori Woods. All the seams of the collection were stitched in a circular pattern and flipped inside out, which acts as metaphors for Indigenous relationality and the practice of engaging in decolonization, respectively. (Photo courtesy of Justine Woods)
“I wanted to look at relationships of love that exist between my body and the land, my body and non-human nations (like plants and animals), as well as the practices I was engaging in through the making, designing and wearing of these garments.”
The creation of the collection involved countless hours of research, pattern drafting, stitching and sewing, as well as deep introspection into why she was creating each garment.
“Everything was connected in relationship to one another to support my body as an Indigenous person, as I was engaging in cultural practices, in relation to the land where I come from,” shared Woods. “Every choice that I made in the design process was intentional and had a function.”
The functionality element Woods describes can be seen in the ice fishing bib pants from her collection (pictured below). This piece in particular reminded Woods of fishing trips with her father and the love she has for her homeland.
Justine Woods models her ice fishing bib pants from her 2021 thesis collection on the ice of Georgian Bay, Ontario. Photography by Lori Woods. (Photo courtesy of Justine Woods)
Sustainability and Spirituality
The garment, sewn in double-faced wool and vegetable tanned deer hide, while lined with seed beads, also emphasizes Woods’ commitment to sustainable fashion design.
“The majority of the materials I prefer to use in my work are land based. A lot of my pieces feature rawhide, deer skin, moose hide…,” said Woods. “Supporting the economic resurgence of other creators is also very important to me, which is why I always try to support Indigenous, independent bead sellers.”
Sustainable garment creation is a natural practice for many Indigenous designers, according to a CBC article from last summer. Many scholars also point to Indigenous sustainable design practices as a guiding light for the future to combat the ever-worsening climate crisis.
“The importance of connections to our land, and thinking about our impact, those values really inspire a different relationship and meaning with fashion,” said Taylor Brydges, a PhD in Canadian fashion and a current post-doctoral student at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Building Community Through Beading Circles
Woods continues to share her Aabitaawikwe culture with others through the weekly beading circle gatherings she created at TMU in the beginning of 2019. Despite switching to a virtual experience due to the pandemic, the circle has only grown in popularity and has recently secured a partnership with Indigenous-owned company, Manitobah Mukluks.
Through the 1867 Indian Act, many Indigenous gatherings, including beading circles, were banned in Canada until 1951. Today, beading circles are a celebration of the resistance of Indigenous Peoples.
“Beading circles are an act of resurgence,” said Woods. “It’s a space where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks can form reciprocal, respectful relationships that contribute towards anti-colonial futures.”
Justine Woods and others take part in a beading circle at TORONTO METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY. Photography by Alia Youssef. (Photo courtesy of TMU)
In addition to her design work, Woods is expanding her career into teaching. She is currently a graduate assistant and contract lecturer at TMU where she is creating an entirely new course that opens in the Winter 2022 semester titled “Indigenous Craft Practices”.
Despite her many jobs, spreading the word of decolonization through the promotion of Indigenous love and values remains at the forefront of all Woods’ endeavours. She hopes that her work will one day help future generations have an easier time connecting and relating to their Indigeneity.
“What makes Indigenous fashion so powerful is that it’s a visual stance that we’re still here and our culture is still flourishing even though, you know, they tried,” says Woods with a laugh. “Going forward it’s just that — continuing to piece together teachings, knowledge, and continuing to refuse.”
This piece was published in New Wave's Spring 2022 Issue