Vanguard: The Lengths This Indigenous Jeweler Went to for Her Craft

Vanguard: The Lengths This Indigenous Jeweler Went to for Her Craft

Photo collage of founder Tania Larsson. The portrait of her is pictured in both black and white and colour in the foreground, wearing a lumber jacket, glasses with her hair in braids. Behind her are a series of stock photographs of the Northwest territories in Canada, where she grew up and currently lives. The stock photographs are in the shape of an animal hide, to illustrate her respect for animals and the tanning process used in her jewellery making. In the top left and right corner are  images of her earrings and on the bottom left is one of her necklaces. Vanguard by Shopify Studios is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment. 


Tania Larsson is a maker of Gwich’in fine jewelry. When she was 15, Tania left France and moved to Northern Canada to learn more about her Gwich’in heritage. The learning curve was steep, but Tania began making and selling jewelry created through traditional Gwich’in techniques, and her work has been featured in one of the most influential fashion magazines in the world: Vogue. This is how it happened.

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Show Notes

Host

Anshuman Iddamsetty

Producers

Emma Fedderson, Jace Meyer, and Anshuman Iddamsetty

Senior Supervising Producer 

Tammi Downey

Engineer

Raheem Grant

Musical Score 

Jim Guthrie

Transcript

Tania: It’s really amazing seeing traditionally brain-tanned moose hide and caribou hide...with Muskox horn that was harvested in the barren lands...in Vogue. Each time I looked at it, it made me giggle because I thought it was awesome! [laughs

Drin gwiinzii [Gwich’in: Good day] My name is Tania Larsson and I’m a Gwich’in fine jeweler based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Anshuman (voice-over): This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios. It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money today. I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty. 

When Tania was learning how to tan hides from her Gwich’in elders, she quickly realized just how much there was to learn. 

Tania: It’s not only the process of learning to work on animal skin, but it’s also learning the protocols. 

Anshuman (voice-over): Like how to set up your camp. And how to keep it clean.

Tania: When there’s dirt on the floor, you lay spruce bows, and that will keep your area clean because all of the dirt will sift through the needles and won’t stay on the top. 

I went into the bush with my little hatchet, and I came back all proud. I probably had a handful of spruce bows. And then, you know, the elder, who is half my size, is carrying this gigantic tarp and flips it over her back, and it just opens up and the whole tarp is filled with bows! And it’s like... [laughs]

Anshuman (voice-over): This is what drives Tania’s work as a maker of Gwich’in fine jewelry. The opportunity to learn more about her culture. 

Tania: It was, like, the most humbling experience ’cause I just didn’t know what I was doing. But it was just, like, this beautiful moment of just seeing how I was just a baby in my culture.

Anshuman (voice-over): Today on Vanguard, I speak with Tania Larsson of Tania Larsson Studio. 

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Okay, now back to the show. How would you describe your jewelry to someone who has never seen it?

Tania: Okay, that’s a good one. I think I would describe my jewelry as Gwich’in fine jewelry that creates a sensory experience, because oftentimes I use materials that come from the land and that create, like—whether I’m using, you know, beadwork on moose hide with caribou hair tufting—these are elements that you don’t really encounter often. But when you’re wearing those pieces, you might catch the scent of the spruce smoke that creates the color of the hides, or when you touched the tufting, it’s completely different than anything you’ve touched before. You know when a medical room is super sanitized...

Anshuman: Very sterile? 

Tania: Yeah, very sterile, very cold, has to be high-polished and high-finished to be valued? And so my jewelry is opposite to that. 

Anshuman: Yeah. 

Tania: My jewelry is so opposite to that. Not only does it have a specific scent to it because of the material that I use. But one earring to the other will have slight differences so nothing is perfectly matched. And I just really like imperfection making a piece perfect. And so that’s what I like to create in my work today.

Anshuman (voice-over): Tania’s jewelry is deeply tied to her Gwich’in identity. When she was young—growing up in France—her introduction to Gwich’in culture came from her mother, who was raised in Northern Canada. 

Tania: She was born on the land. She grew up on the land. Her parents were trappers. And so she was also always out on the land, trapping and running around. Those were her favorite memories to share with us.

Anshuman (voice-over): But when her mother was 5, her entire family was forced to leave...

Tania: The government had moved her family from Aklavik to a government-made town called Inuvik because they had told the community that their town was gonna flood. And so they moved them in a small shack with no running water. And it was her parents and her 12 siblings.

Anshuman (voice-over): Once in Inuvik, Tania’s mother was one of the thousands of Indigenous children separated from their families by the Canadian government—placed in what was known as the Canadian Residential School System. 

The system was designed to assimilate Indigenous youth to Canadian values by forcibly putting them into boarding schools run by the Church. 

Tania: I don’t think a lot of people really understand. I don’t think I completely understand, you know, the notion of being hungry because you don’t have proper nutrition while going to school, or the violence perpetrated against you by older students or by teachers and nuns and stuff like that. And even worse, like, the sexual violence that was, you know, happening. But on top of all of that, it was the breaking of relationships. So completely breaking our traditional families and communities by taking away the children, which were the center of the family in the center of the community and really not leaving a role for parents or grandparents or even for leaders. You know, today we’re still suffering from the intergenerational trauma that happened due to residential school. 

And oftentimes we forget about that and lots of people didn’t know that that was going on.

Anshuman (voice-over): It was at this residential school that Tania’s mother was selected for another program. 

Tania: And it was to see if Indigenous kids were any good at sports. I think about eight of the kids who had started the T.E.S.T. program ended up going to the Olympics, and my mom and her twin sister had a long career competing for Canada. 

I didn’t even know that she had competed in the Olympics. I just thought that everybody had a poster of their mom on their wall! [laughs

Anshuman (voice-over): It was through skiing that Tania’s parents met and eventually settled in a small village near the French Alps—that’s where Tania grew up. But as she got older, Tania became curious about her Gwich’in roots. 

Tania: So my family decided to move to Yellowknife from France when I was 15. It was actually—the move, I guess, was started because of me wanting to learn more about my culture, about the land, and to get to know my family better. 

Anshuman: There almost sounds like there was an urgency to move to Canada, to Yellowknife. Why was that so important to your family? 

Tania: My mom had always told me and my sisters that, you know, it’s so important to know who you are, so that you don’t spend the rest of your life looking for that.

Anshuman: Was there a moment that really validated the decision to return to your roots? 

Tania: So the first trip that I took on the land was a river trip, was super impactful, and that for me was completely worth moving to the North. And it continued that way when I was able to learn how to tan hides, because just the fact of tanning hides was not only the physical aspect, but really about reconnecting with elders and learning how to ask questions. Because I didn’t realize the deep shame I had for not knowing my culture and for not being able to talk about it. And to ask, because it’s really hard to go see someone and be like, you know, teach me my culture, teach me everything I need to know, versus, like, How do I do this, or, Is this the right way to do it? 

Anshuman: I’d like to learn more about tanning hides, and so I’d like you to walk me through your very first experience of tanning hides. What was that like?

Tania: Yeah, definitely. When you work on hides, you usually start by cutting the hair off the animal. And so you’re learning your knife techniques and knife angles. And it took me a while to understand how to cut the hair off without cutting the skin.

I think that’s what I enjoy about hide tanning, because it’s not only learning by the sounds that it does when you’re working on a hide, but also by feeling. And seeing. It’s just a different sensory learning experience that you have to take in to learn the process.

And it’s really physical. You have to do lots of mental work to stay positive because that’s what your elders teach you is, whenever you work on an animal, you have to honor the animal for giving its life to you. Because we don’t believe in, you know, trophy hunting, where you, like, stand over the animal and, like, in a very colonist way, you know, say, I conquered this.

Anshuman: When did you start becoming interested in jewelry? 

Tania: As a teenager. I think as a teenager, that’s when I really got interested in making jewelry, because for me, that was the easiest way to show where you’re from and who you belong to. But yet you could wear every day. Since I’m from my mixed heritage, it’s always, you know, people don’t really know that I’m Gwich’in or don’t even know what Gwich’in is. And so that was what was really important to me.

And so after tanning my first hide, one of my friends told me to go to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is an art institute mostly for Indigenous people. Like, it’s not closed to non-Indigenous, but it’s definitely focused on Indigenous people. And so it was great to learn art over there because you did not have to constantly prove yourself of being Indigenous.

Anshuman (voice-over): While she was in school, Tania got an opportunity to conduct research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. It was there that she studied a collection of some 300 Gwich’in artifacts. 

Tania: And so what was the most shocking is, I didn’t find lots of jewelry, and what I found was adornment on our everyday items. That made sense to me because I’m like, if it’s minus 40 and you’re nomadic, which means you’re constantly moving, does it make more sense to sew your massive necklace onto your outfits or to, like, have an add on that you have to add something on! And so it was like learning about functionality and adornments and how something sits on your body and what purpose it serves.

So it was very interesting to see my people and understand the value they had on how we presented ourselves. Even though we were living in such harsh environments, we spend hundreds of hours making, like, beautiful quillwork with the loom to decorate ourselves. And then it also really defied that whole notion that, you know, Indigenous people just had basic loincloth running around in the bush. You know, the notions that you’re taught in school that we’re just savages, and we didn’t even know what we were doing with our land.

Anshuman: When did you realize you could sell the jewelry you were making? 

Tania: So when I was in school, oftentimes I would share my process of making jewelry or even the process of tanning hides. And it really was something different than most people saw on their feeds, I guess. And so, whenever I posted the jewelry I created, it really took off, and I’ve always had a hard time keeping up with the demand.

Anshuman: So they just always keep selling out. 

Tania: Yes. [laughs] Which is not always a good thing!

Anshuman: Wait, what do you mean?

Tania: Well, it’s just, right now I’m focusing on building, you know, systems and hiring more people in my community to actually help me produce, because I cannot keep up with the demand, and there’s not enough hours in the day for me to create enough jewelry pieces. And for me, it’s so important that it is created and made up north by Indigenous artists and Indigenous makers.

Anshuman: So I wonder how you go about pricing things correctly? You know what I mean? Like, how do you figure out how to price a piece of jewelry in a way that doesn’t devalue its worth, that it’s respectful, I guess, to the amount of work you’ve put into its production?

Tania: Pricing was extremely hard for me as a jeweler, but also, like, starting my business. Because of the relationship with money and all the emotional attachment that came with it. And I realize if I didn’t value the work that I was putting out there, people would not value not only the work that I was putting out there, but my culture. And it would impact other traditional artists or other jewelers. So it’s super important for me to learn to price appropriately and really push the boundaries of pricing for the kind of work that I do and for people to value Indigenous arts and to value our work and the amount of time we spend learning our culture, so that we can share it with the world. Because it’s not innate because of the amount of work that was done to sever the ties with our culture. So it’s something that I have to spend years to learn, and I go at length to find connections to do so. And so I really want people to value that. 

Anshuman (voice-over): Tania’s big break came when she was featured in one of the most influential magazines in the fashion industry. Can we talk about Vogue

Tania: Yeah! [laughsGetting an email from Vogue,saying that they wanted my work in their printed issue. Like, it was definitely scary. The impostor syndrome being, like, Oh, I need to create something even better to be in the pages of Vogue. And then trying to calm myself and being like, Oh, they contacted me because they saw the work that is already existing, and they didn’t contact me because of the work that is in my mind, that I’m going to create.

Oh, I was too scared to open the magazine when I finally got it! [laughs] So that was quite funny. And then it was really crazy. Honestly, I didn’t expect the amount of press that it received and, like, not being able to keep up with any of the demands and, like, kind of burning out a little bit. So I was, like, after that, my first week of June is always hide tanning. So I was just happy to have a one week break where there’s no internet where I’m at, or power. So I was just like, it’s good to reconnect.

Anshuman: I’m curious what you make of being featured in ostensibly a very mainstream, very capitalist magazine when so much of your practice, both jewelry making, your own artistic explorations, come from a place that is absolutely not mainstream and absolutely not capitalist.

Tania: Yeah. For me, it’s just like—because oftentimes luxury brands and designers often rip off Indigenous cultures and designs to create their collections, thinking that we are part of the past, that we’re extinguished, that we have been completely wiped out. And they don’t realize that whenever they go look online for, like, a Native American purse and they steal the design that they found, like the stock image, they don’t realize that that design belongs to a family that is still alive today and living. And so it was really great to be able to have my design in the magazine before another designer ripped it off from my website or from my social media. So for me, that was a win. 

Anshuman: So who opened the magazine? 

Tania: I ended up opening the magazine! [laughs]

Anshuman: [laughsJust hearing you speak, I get this profound sense that you’ve had this absolute appreciation for Indigenous culture from a very young age. And I’m wondering if you’ve ever had to struggle with your own proximity, I guess, to that white, colonialist narrative, to the way it can sometimes internalize its racism.

Tania: Yeah, definitely. That’s a tough one. I think it’s an act of rebellion to be able to create adornment that brings pride to me, but it’s also a reflection of my culture and all of the policies and all of the horrific things that happened to Indigenous people, you know. It’s directly fighting against that. Me valuing my culture and putting it to the highest standard as in fine jewelry is in itself, you know, rebelling against assimilation and also against that shame that I’m supposed to feel about who I am in this world today.

Anshuman (voice-over): Tania Larsson is the founder of Tania Larsson Studio. So I read in an interview that you wanted Janelle Monáe to wear your jewelry, so, I’ve got to ask, how’s that mission been going? 

Tania: Oh my god, I got too shy! 

Anshuman: What!? No!

Tania: I was like, I know. I know. I know. I know. I just—because things have been so crazy, I just need to contact someone on her team. I know people are rooting for me, to see my work on her. So, it’s definitely something I have to work on. 

Anshuman: Janelle. Janelle Monáe, if you’re listening to us right now, and I have no doubt that you are, link up with Tania, make something happen. 

Tania: [laughs].

Listen to more episodes of Vanguard by Shopify Studios, a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment. 

Feature image by Franziska Barczyk

About the Author

Anshuman Iddamsetty is Shopify’s Podcast Producer. He spends a lot of thinking about how marginalized communities make money today. His non-fiction debut, Hello Pig: Notes for a Fat Future is out early 2020 on Strange Light.

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