With everything going on, a lot of us are searching for community right now. Something that once seemed easy, routine and permanent now feels vital, fresh, and maybe even illusive for the first time in our lives. For those who don’t always fit into our dominant culture, such as racialized folks, the genderqueer, even artists, the search for community is old hat. And while that search is rarely easy, it can be a catalyst for creating something truly special.

This April, Alanah Astehtsi Otsistohkwa Jewell channeled her own search for community into a first-of-its-kind design collaboration with the University of Waterloo by launching a collection of merchandise at the W Store. Each piece features an original design by the Waterloo Region-based artist. 

“I spent a lot of time searching for identity in my undergrad at another university,” says Jewell who is a mixed French-First Nations artist, belonging to the Bear Clan from the Oneida Nation of the Thames. “I was really involved at the Indigenous Student Centre and felt like I belonged to a cultural community there. But I didn’t see myself anywhere else.”

Jewell says she could only be herself at the Indigenous Student Centre — a small, close-knit community separated to a degree from the main campus — sparked a sense of determination in her to make university in Ontario a more inclusive space.

“I think I felt like my art could make an impact with Waterloo — so Indigenous students can see themselves on main campus and in mainstream spaces,” she says. “But also, for non-Indigenous people to feel like they have a place to learn about our art and history, and to give a modern perspective about what our communities are capable of.”

The merch is available now for purchase and includes a variety of unique items such as apparel, drinkware, stationery and a blanket so stunning people can’t help but comment on it. Jewell also got an assist by Anishnaabeg bead virtuoso and Waterloo master’s student, Emma Rain Smith. Smith added even more meaning to Alanah’s original artwork by incorporating it into traditional beadwork.

“I created something that incorporates the feeling of being on these lands in a more natural way. I go to the Grand River often, and each time I see a heron,” says Jewell. “I really wanted to incorporate herons in flight, almost taking energy from the Great Tree of Peace. I wanted it to feel circular, to reflect cycles and teachings about sitting in a circle and learning from one another.”

The design itself featuring two herons, a tree, on a teal backgroundThat feeling of circularity rings especially true today. After roughly two years of a global pandemic, we all now find ourselves once again back together, talking, sharing and learning on  campus — but with a noticeable difference.

After what we’ve all been through — the grief, the loss, and the resilience — many of us are now searching for ways we can apply this new-found perspective into creating a community where everyone feels more safe, secure, and seen.

It was this same search that sparked the University’s W Store side of this collaboration.

“We believe that everyone at the University of Waterloo has a role to play in the University’s commitment to decolonization and Indigenization,” says Ryan Jacobs, director of Print and Retail Solutions, who oversees the W Store. “The University of Waterloo sits on the Haldimand Tract, so it was important to us to create a space within our physical store — within our little piece of the Haldimand Tract on campus — to acknowledge and honour the original inhabitants of this territory.”

How to do that properly was something Jacobs and his team put careful consideration into.

“We had many conversations internally over several years and we explored a variety of options,” says Jacobs about the process that eventually led them to Jewell.

They wondered if they should seek out Indigenous wholesalers and curate a selection of products for the store? Should they select a piece or two of existing Indigenous art from a local artist and apply them on the products that typically sell well for them? Should they establish a partnership with a local Indigenous artist and commission something especially for the University?

They’d mostly settled on the third option but were still unsure of a few things. Being enthusiastic about adding a collection of Indigenous artwork wasn’t enough. They knew they could not move forward without consultation with the Office of Indigenous Relations.   

“When we approached Jean Becker and Robin Stadelbauer about a year ago, they advised us that we were on the right track with this thinking — at least as a first step — and recommended Alanah Astehtsi Otsistohkwa Jewell as the ideal artist to approach about a partnership,” says Jacobs.

That fortuitous consultation resulted in what Becker, associate vice-president, Indigenous Relations, describes as the collection of “exquisite designs.” It also solidified exactly how proceeds from the sales could support Waterloo’s Indigenous students.

Through an agreement between the W Store, Alanah, and the Office of Indigenous Relations, the W Store is donating proceeds from the sale to the Indigenous Student Success Fund on campus.

According to Stadelbauer, Waterloo’s Indigenous Relations Coordinator, “the Indigenous Student Success Fund was established to provide financial assistance to those Indigenous students who are most at risk of abandoning their education due to financial hardship.” Emergency housing-related expenses, rental payment, funding security, and education enrichment opportunities like conferences will all be addressed by the fund.

For some the return to “business as usual” is easy, like catching up with old friends. But for others it’s raising questions about our relationships with each other, our relationships with work, school, and our community.

“I don’t think something like this would have happened on campus without the hard work being done by our Indigenous friends and colleagues on campus,” says Jacobs. “This collection is a small part of the Indigenization work non-Indigenous folks need to do, but it’s a step forward on a journey with no end date.”

All involved in the project say they hope the designs inspire people to join this journey with an open mind, open heart and, “open wallets!” Jewell says, joking. But seriously, “I want people to feel a sense of identity and community when they see and/or buy my merch,” says Jewell. “Who do you belong to? Who are your people? Where is your traditional territory? These questions are really important, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”