Joleen is the founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week and the co-founder of Supernaturals—the world’s first all-Indigenous modelling agency. Through the organization Urban Butterflies, she helps Indigenous youth in foster care connect with their culture. She's an athlete, advocate, activist, and former model. We spoke with Joleen about basketball, Indigenous fashion, and forming strong relationships. You’re going to want to get to know her.
What role has basketball played in your life?
Basketball is pretty huge for Indigenous people all across Turtle Island. I’ve gotten to meet and learn about so many different nations while travelling for basketball. The All Native Basketball Tournament is the biggest basketball tournament for Indigenous people. It’s like our olympics. Our practices like Potlach and other ceremonies were kind of stolen from us so the only places we could gather as Indigenous people was through church or sport. That’s why our basketball team, All My Relations, is so important. It gives us a chance to gather. There’s also a large gap between the oldest and youngest players. Our oldest player is 41 and our youngest just turned 18 so there’s a lot of intergenerational mentorship happening.
Your team All My Relations won the All Native basketball tournament in 2022. What do you think helps women feel empowered and work well together in a team setting?
We had a matriarch—a great coach who’d won at another big Indigenous gathering for sport and basketball. We also got elders involved with the team and changed our style of practicing. We did a lot of praying. It can be hard to keep up with your cultural practices in a big city because it’s expensive and we all have busy lives. But then, during the pandemic, we didn’t really have much going on so we’d get together a lot outside and do workouts, which helped keep us sane. We’d take spirit baths where we’d all jump into freezing glacier waters. We really made sure our spirits were taken care of. Getting together more often really helped us form strong bonds, and it became like a sisterhood where we really relied on each other for emotional support. I think that’s why we won.
You’re the co-founder of Supernaturals modelling agency, and the founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. You were also a model yourself. What experiences while modelling propelled you to form both this agency and event?
I just feel like I’m trying to push the needle as much as I can for Indigenous people. Back when I was modelling Indigenous people weren’t as revered as they are now. No one wanted to be Native. And now it’s like everyone wants to be Native. My goal is to make Vancouver as Indigenous as possible and I think we’re helping do that with these organizations.
What historical aspects of Indigenous fashion do you find inspiring?
I think we dress for the next generation. When you go into a Potlach or a ceremony, the significance of wearing a button blanket, or your hide, or your ribbons is to show the sacred items that represent you and your clan. Indigenous fashion is completely different from Eurocentric fashion because it tells a story. Our fashion isn’t about what colour is “in” this year. It’s about animals, or seasons, or berries, and we’re able to understand this because we still have our elders who pass down the stories that give these items meaning.
A lot of your work is centered around building and strengthening community. What do you feel are the keys to building a strong sense of community?
I think it’s about relationships. It’s also about learning systems and identifying the gaps within those systems, and bringing in Indigenous knowledge to help create solutions. It’s also important to help show people the way as opposed to doing things for them.
You work with Urban Butterflies, an organization that helps Indigenous youth who are in foster care connect with their culture. Can you tell us about some of your favourite experiences working with this organization?
My mom was a Sixties Scooper so, if she was a little kid, she would have been in my program. I think working here has helped heal that relationship between me and my mom and given me a deeper understanding of where she came from. But the experiences with the kids—they’re all so good. It’s amazing to get to teach these kids about aspects of their culture like button blankets and take them on trips to go swimming and things like that. When I was growing up I was often the only Indigenous kid around. So, it’s really special to watch all these little kids who are so happy to meet other Indigenous kids. I’ve known some of them since they were 10 and now they’re 25 or 26. I’ve gotten to be a constant in their life. Getting to witness these kids heal has been very impactful and powerful, even to my own development.
What pieces of jewelry help you feel grounded in who you are?
My cousin is a jeweler and he made a necklace for me that has “turtle” written on it in our language. Turtle is our last name. I’m not originally from the coast, I'm from the sovereign nation Sawridge Nation, which is in northern Alberta.
So having that necklace makes me feel pretty grounded. It reminds me of where I come from, and it’s nice because we’re on Turtle Island and it’s our last name.
What are some of the strongest relationships in your life? What makes them strong?
I got really close with my Aunty who started Urban Butterflies. She actually passed the program on to me so I could keep the torch going. She was also a Sixties Scooper. She didn’t get to meet her mom. Community work can be daunting—there’s always so much to do—but I think that’s also what helped keep our relationship strong. Beau Dick was another great mentor to me. He was a hereditary chief and a master carver. He taught me a lot about how to read a room and place people during Potlach ceremonies. He smashed a copper shield on the legislature to break the colonial spell. He’s kind of a magician. I have a lot of great relationships—Patrick is like my life partner, the basketball team feels like a sisterhood, the little ones at Urban Butterflies feel like my kids, and so do the models. So many of the relationships with people around me have been deepened because we’re all interested in pushing Indigenous issues and showing people that we’re strong.
Is there anything specific that you’d like to talk about or draw attention to?
Come to Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. We have a really great market there. It’s a great place to get moccasins and blankets. It’s a come one come all event. We want everyone to come and buy from us. It’s also a really fun time with musical guests and tons of cool fashion.