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Métis Artist Frances Whitford Creates T-shirt for Orange Shirt Day

Posted on: September 20 2022

Unity, truth, and a positive path forward

Walk into a local retail store in September, and you may find Orange Shirt Day merchandise. Walk into TIX on the Square, and you’ll find wearable art, designed and printed by Indigenous artists like Frances Whitford of Beadwork & Bannock. Not only did Whitford and her son, Arden Herman, create an orange shirt for others to wear in support of the movement, she created it as part of her own family’s truth and reconciliation.

“Normally, T-shirts are right out of my element,” explains Whitford, who comes from a long line of trappers. “Hide and fur are the mediums I usually like to work with, but I just felt called to tell this story—and to include my children. Part of our coming to knowledge of our past with residential schools is to really shed light on understanding that we have our own story to tell. Knowing that the world is seeing the truth now, we needed to stand in our own truth. So I just really wanted them to understand their history, as much as I can teach it, and as much as I can learn it myself to pass it on to them so they can understand why we are the way we are these days and which direction we need to move in. I needed a positive outlet to empower them to know that healing is possible, and necessary, and important for them to think about. That’s the real legacy I’d like to leave—that we need to move forward in a positive light, and that sometimes extracting a positive from a negative situation is the best way to grow and heal. That’s what I hope my T-shirts will do.“

As Whitford explains, her story and T-shirt design are both centered around the Western Tiger Lily, a flower native to her childhood home and symbolic of her family’s path forward.

“I chose the Western Tiger Lily because it is an endangered species, much like Indigenous people are now. I was raised by my grandparents in Anzac, Alberta, where we’d go to a place called Halfway Camp to get our water, when you could still drink water. And that’s where the tiger lilies were. On every trip, I’d always try to pick them, and my grandfather would constantly tell me, “They’re never going to grow in a vase, my girl. You have to leave them where they are.” And even though I always asked why and he never fully explained, I now understand. When this flower is taken out of its natural environment, it dies. And that story just reminded me of when Indigenous children were taken from their environment and expected to thrive and grow somewhere that wasn’t nurturing them in the right way. They assumed that putting them in a vase, and giving them water, and nurturing them a certain way was going to be sufficient. But Indigenous People are a distinct people—the way we are raised, our thinking patterns, and our genealogy are different. So we didn‘t thrive and we didn’t grow. Instead, it had catastrophic effects to the point that we are trying to find our roots again because we were extracted from them.”

When it came to designing her orange shirt, Whitford says that all of those story elements just came together. “My son’s father is First Nations and I’m Métis, so the infinity symbol represents me, the medicine wheel represents him, and the feathers represent the children, as does the lily. By encompassing everything in a circle, it’s all connected and just makes perfect sense to me.“

The shirts designed by Whitford and Arden are available now at TIX on the Square, where you’ll also find work from other Indigenous artists, many of whom belong to the Indigenous Artists Market Collective (I.A.M Collective). TIX expects to bring in more T-shirts designed by other artists in the coming weeks and months, the proceeds of which will go directly to the artists, who will in turn donate a portion to a cause of their choosing.

That support and sense of community is something Whitford says cannot be underestimated—that when you buy Indigenous products from Indigenous artists, the effect is far more reaching than you might imagine:

“It truly is a preservation of culture and of legacy. Our Indigenous art tells the story of our history, of our connectedness to other cultures and other places, and reminds us of the unity that we need to continue to share. I think it’s good to walk in your individual light and be proud of who you are and where you come from, but it’s also good to be proud of other cultures too, to raise them up and know that you stand in unity with them. So that’s what I’d like people to know—that when they purchase Indigenous art, they’re not only supporting an artist, they’re actually preserving a culture. And that’s an amazing thing.”