Entrepreneur honors traditions through fashion, activism

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KAHNAWAKE, Quebec - When Tammy Beauvais was 7 and people asked her, ''Tammy, what are you going to be,'' she had an answer for them: a fashion designer.

''Then when I was 13, my aunt wanted a dress for her new baby, so I made a traditional Iroquois outfit. It was my first commission,'' Beauvais told Indian Country Today.

''All through high school, no matter what else I was doing, I took custom orders for traditional clothing. But I forgot about my vision, the way people do, during my teenage years, and went into social work,'' she continued.

''As soon as I finished my program, I realized that social work was not for me; but during my study of social work I had done a lot of my own personal healing, and that brought me back to my vision of being a fashion designer.

''At seven, your spirit's strong; you're still connected to yourself. But as you get older, your spirit weakens. Because of the work I did while I was studying social work, my spirit got strong again,'' she said.

''I started taking business courses and told myself I was going to do this. I knew it would be hard and take a long time, but I made the commitment. Eight years later, here I am,'' she continued.

It's where she is today that's so interesting.

''Over the years, fashion design has become secondary and I am now focused on developing my entrepreneurial skills. I'm shifting from creating to being a businessperson.''

This vision and its development have led Beauvais in unexpected and exciting directions.

''In my designs, I utilize old Iroquois symbols and traditions, and that has taken me to different places. I am a human rights activist, and that comes from my commitment not just to use the symbols, but to stay true to them,'' she explained. ''I am pursuing not only the entrepreneurial part, but also the part about taking up my duties and responsibilities as a human being.''

Beauvais has been working with the women in her community who were affected by a Canadian governmental policy akin to termination in the United States.

''In the 1800s, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada [an arm of the Canadian government analogous to the BIA in the United States] gave us status as Indians. They gave people a card and a number. Then in the 1960s, they ruled that Native women who married non-Natives would lose all their indigenous rights. They couldn't live in Indian communities, or be buried in our cemeteries. Native men who married non-Native women retained their rights.

''In 1981, that changed. The government gave the women back their rights. But in our community, the women were not allowed back.'' Beauvais lives in Kahnawake, a Mohawk community 15 miles south of Montreal.

Beauvais saw that the women needed to come home, and that she could help them. Her community did change its laws in April to allow the women back, but the struggle is not over. They must go before a board of community elders first.

''So that's my thing. I've been working on it for five years now. The women who were disenfranchised have been fighting for more than 30 years. Some of them are 80 and they can tell their clans back nine generations.''

Beauvais is sure that being an independent businessperson and being a woman in a matriarchal society are the factors that have allowed her to take up this cause.

''I can manage my own time,'' she said. ''And I don't have to worry about losing my job because I am an activist. If I worked for the government, I would think twice about doing this.''

So Beauvais does indeed stay true to the symbols on the clothing she designs. As a woman working in concert with other women to strengthen a community and as a businessperson following her own vision, Beauvais is a 21st century entrepreneur honoring traditions thousands of years old.

For more information on Tammy Beauvais Designs, visit www.tammybeauvais.com.