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Nice to see you here again. Today, I will do my best to answer a question sent in by Dan Straker. He writes:
“I have this question about what to do with inauthentic Cowichan sweaters that have been gifted to me or I’ve acquired. For instance right now I have one that was hand knit by a white woman in Burnaby I got as an Xmas present about 5 years ago, and another that appeared in my closet somehow, made by American Eagle. I recognize that these are inauthentic, and that makes me uncomfortable to wear them but it also seems a shame to destroy them, and problematic to donate them. I’m wondering if you have some suggestions.”
As usual you’ll find translations for the Hul’q’umi’num words in this article at the bottom.
What is a Cowichan sweater?
When I read your question I can’t help but think about how it is rooted in the deeper problem of cultural appropriation and Indigenous intellectual property rights. During colonization a few Indigenous garments gained popularity with the settler community. The Cowichan sweater was quickly made a British Columbia icon. Hwulmuhw people have been knitting or weaving sacred patterns with mountain goat wool and Salish woolly dog wool for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Cowichan sweaters have a characteristic style, typically using the natural colours of sheep wool. They often have horizontal bands of pattern around the chest and sleeves. Animal motifs are common, too. Cowichan Tribes sets standards for what can be called a “Genuine Cowichan” sweater. They must be hand-knit by a Coast Salish artisan, in one piece, with un-dyed wool, in accordance with traditional tribal methods.
Imitation Cowichan sweaters have been popular since at least the 1950s. Inauthentic Cowichan sweaters borrow the style and patterns of the real deal, but the materials and quality are highly variable. Big clothing companies sometimes falsely market sweaters as “Cowichan.”
What’s the problem with inauthentic sweaters?
Before I can delve into what should be done with fake or inauthentic Cowichan sweaters, we should ask some crafters and knitters what they think about these knock-off sweaters.
I reached out to my elder friend John S. Harry from Lhumlhumuluts’, who is an avid knitter, and asked what he thought about inauthentic Cowichan sweaters. He said, “It is sad that they call ’em Cowichan. Style is all they get. Real warmth and durability is from a true Cowichan sweater.”
Local Salish artisan Nicole Norris summed it up well in saying, “This is an art form that is passed down from generation to generation. Within the teaching of the knitting comes many teachings from the ancestors. The misappropriation of the Cowichan sweater by companies such as Hudson Bay, Bluenotes, TNA, etc., is a grand act of disrespect. It is no different than little totem poles in mass production. There is a deeper meaning behind the designs that go into our sweaters and the replication for mass production is shameful and disrespectful to the original Cowichan knitters. As a Coast Salish artist and regalia maker I don’t approve of massive companies profiting from the cultural misappropriation of our sweaters.”
What should I do with my inauthentic sweater?
I put the question to Dora Wilson, a renowned Cowichan knitter: “Aanthu Thulamiye, Dora Wilson, I knit genuine Cowichan sweaters from Vancouver Island sheep wool. Cowichan knitting is passed on from generation to generation. I have been knitting, non-continually, for 55-60 years. It would be up to you what you want to do with your fake Cowichan sweaters.”
To put it plainly, what people do with their inauthentic Cowichan sweaters is of little concern to Cowichan people. What matters is that those items are not acquired in the first place.
Every imitation sweater made by a non-First Nations person is not only one less sweater for a Cowichan knitter to knit, it is also an affront to the sacred designs that are passed from generation to generation.
Our symbols and knots hold teachings and rights that are often specific to a single family. In a world without written language symbology was paramount. To alter or improperly replicate these symbols damages and devalues what little knowledge of pre-contact symbology remains.
So, do what you want with your imitation Cowichan sweaters; it’s not our business. But, out of respect, please don’t buy, knit, or gift an inauthentic Cowichan sweater. And if someone tries to give you one, use that chance to educate them about the xe’xe’ nature of Cowichan knitting and weaving.
Where can I get a genuine Cowichan sweater?
Cowichan Tribes publishes names and contact information for Cowichan knitters. Some stores also carry genuine Cowichan sweaters. If you see one and you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask. A store that carries real Cowichan sweaters will know exactly where they came from.
Huy tseep q’u,
Jared Qwustenuxun Williams,
grandson of Qwustaanulwut
Do you have a question?
If you have a question I might be able to help answer, tell me here. I’d love to know what you’re curious about.
Hul’q’umi’num language guide
(Here’s a guide to Hul’q’umi’num pronunciation)
- hwulmuhw – First Nations person
- Lhumlhumuluts’ – also known as Clemclem, a Cowichan Tribes reserve and longhouse at the corner of Jimmy Road and Tzouhalem Road, at Cowichan Bay.
- aanthu – I am, or, my name is
- Thulamiye – the name worn by Dora Wilson
- xe’xe – sacred
- huy tseep q’u – thank you (plural)