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Indigenous Dress Theory and Dress in Canadian Residential Schools

by Shawkay Ottmann

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Indian Residential Schools were apart of Canada’s aggressive assimilative policy for Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Métis, Inuit), demonstrating the attempts to erase Indigenous people as a cultural and political entity. Ultimately, the schools were key to the “cultural genocide” that occurred. Upon arriving at the schools, Indigenous children would be stripped of their clothes, which was quickly replaced with foreign dress. The act of forcibly taking away and replacing the clothing of the children entering Indian Residential Schools is a direct result of the assimilative policy. This paper outlines Western dress and uniform theory. From there, an Indigenous dress theory is proposed based on Indigenous epistemologies, which emphasizes the differentiation between Western and Indigenous worldviews. Indian Residential School history is shared before examining the use of dress in the schools. Finally, Western and Indigenous dress theories are used in tandem to analyze the events and effects of stripping Indigenous children of their clothes. Understanding the individual experience is possible due to the voices of school Survivors who shared their stories with the TRC and The Legacy of Hope Foundation, those who wrote their own words down, and the voices found in the archival record.

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