Interview with Tania Larsson: On Indigenous jewellery design, traditional materials, and preserving Gwich’in culture

I’m so honoured to share with you an interview with Tania Larsson, an Indigenous jewellery designer who sustainably uses traditional materials and methods in her work. She has generously shared her experiences and expertise, and tips for those of us who would like to support buying Indigenous-made, not “native inspired”.

(I’m also excited to bring you our first giveaway! It’s a pair of Dentalium Shell and Vintage Beads Earrings by Tania Larsson. Hop on over to my Instagram page to enter.)

Could you please briefly introduce yourself and your work, with whatever details you would like to include?

My name is Tania Larsson and I create Gwich’in Fine Jewellery. My nation is located in the northern part of the Northwest Territories expands to the Yukon and Alaska.

The jewellery that I make comes from the land, I hand process parts of the animal that are usually left behind and pair them with silver, gold, beads and diamonds to create exquisite pieces. The beads I use are deadstock vintage and antique, meaning they stopped making them 30 to over a hundred years ago. I only use precious metals so that people value the work that I do and invest in their pieces, to step away from that fast fashion/trendy mentality, where your jewelry can be discarded after a couple of uses.

I also enjoy to create a sensory experience with the pieces I create like the scent of the smoked hide that you can experience when wearing my work or even the chiming of the shells created when you walk wearing dentalium earrings.

Day2-Tania-1

Could you tell me a little about your approach to sustainability and slow fashion?

My approach to sustainability and slow fashion was taught to me by my family and mentors.

You see, when you learn how to sew or bead, you are taught to never waste anything. We display the upmost respect for our tools like needles and knife because people here will still share stories of the times when having a steel needle was a rarity and if you drop it you will always stop everything and find it. We are also taught to act in a respectful manner when working with our materials especially if it’s an animal part (hide, fur, antlers). I was taught that I had to think positive around it and never say anything disrespectful about it, so it really changes the way you behave and heightens your awareness when you think of objects as alive instead of inanimate object like most of Western ways of thinking.

Would you like to discuss your use of animal materials?

Being a part of a strong community is also essential to sustainability. I work with a network of hunters who practice subsistence hunting, meaning they use the same trails their ancestors have to provide food for their family and community. I always feel special when one of them lets me know they left a pair of horns out on the land to age for me and they will be ready to pick up in the spring after the snow melts.

When the material you use is that rare, and I can only get it once a year, you tend to really think smartly of how to use it. So, I think about it like when a stone cutter processes a diamond. You focus on how to get best cuts, and everything that is taking off during the process because a smaller stone, so nothing goes to waste. Same for other materials, all the fur that is left over from the main pieces become the filler for my pompoms, instead of using synthetic fillers. Which is an interesting challenge even in my studio, but I find I create interesting pieces because of it.

 

Could you please tell me a little about your experience as an Indigenous designer and female entrepreneur?

Being an Indigenous designer and female entrepreneur allows me to learn and practice my culture as part of my job, and that is one of the reasons I do what I do. Researching and practicing my culture are two core values of my business. Colonization in Canada and residential schools were extremely effective to make us ashamed of our culture, language, and traditions. One of the last of those schools, that closed in 1996, was located in my mother’s home community.

Therefore, it is imperative that I learn what I should have known as a Gwich’in woman, so many of my professional development include learning how to sew or how be on the land with elders. One of my mission in creating beautiful Gwich’in Fine Jewellery is for people to wear them proudly, gain an inch from holding their head up to display my work, because it empowers them.

Could you please give some advice to those looking to support Indigenous designers and/or business owners? How can we make the best purchasing decisions possible, as consumers? What else can we do?

As consumers, buying Indigenous made, not “native inspired,” is crucial. I know that many other Indigenous entrepreneurs think of the impact on the earth of how their products are made but also the social impact of who are making their products. A powerful common thread that I look for in Indigenous entrepreneurs is how they incorporate and use their traditions knowledge taught from their elders. That is an insurance of sorts that they are accountable to their community to make, share and behave in a good way.

  • Jamie Okuma just came out with a beautiful collection that was handmade locally in California and some were even hand finished by her and her mother, using the finest fabric that was made with sustainable materials. Jokuma.com
  • Uasau soap uses whale fat that she processes at home to make the most nourishing body butters and lip balms that protects you from the deadly dryness of the Arctic winter months. (facebook.com/uasau.soap and coming soon uasausoap.com)
  • Quw’utsun’Made (quwutsunmade.com) and Skwalwen Botanicals (skwalwen.com) are both from the Northwest coast and create skincare products handmade with ancestral knowledge of local medicine.
  • Eighth generation is a great example of a native-owned company who partners with Indigenous artists (sharing their picture and stories) to create designs for their blanket instead of the well-known wool blanket company who has stolen designs for decades without compensating the artists and native community. (eighthgeneration.com/collections/blankets)

LeahStellaPayne-Sig-BLK

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