For our very special 10-year anniversary cover, we chose to connect with and feature a woman who is a multi-talented creative phenomenon. Sarain Fox is a dancer, choreographer, activist and television host. A storyteller at heart, Fox is of Anishinaabe lineage and combines various mediums to amplify the voices of her people in hopes of creating meaningful dialogue between her Indigenous community and settler communities.
Her screen highlights include RISE and Cut-Off on Viceland, and APTN’s Future History. As a dance artist, Fox has trained at many highly acclaimed faculties, including Quinte Ballet School, The Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She has also danced with prestigious Indigenous dance companies and artists, such as Buffy Saint Marie, Digging Roots, A Tribe Called Red, Kahawaii dance theatre in Toronto, Untld. Collective in Australia and Ajkun Ballet Theatre in New York City. Her collaborative work with Xara Choral theatre (Fatty Legs) can be seen as an example of Fox’s lifelong commitment to art as a tool for reconciliation.
Fox has also worked closely with many fashion and beauty brands, as well as travel and lifestyle organizations and charities. In this exclusive interview, we caught up with her during a busy season of awards, public speaking and other projects.
HANNAH YAKOBI: I first heard you speak this September during World Tourism Day. You were speaking about how we can all make travel better, and this event was organized by The TreadRight Foundation and The Travel Corporation. Can you tell me more about your involvement with TreadRight?
SARAIN FOX: I’ve been working with TreadRight for almost three years now, and I’m their official “People” Storyteller and Ambassador. One of the longest-standing partnerships I have is with Manitobah Mukluks and I’ve been the ambassador for their Storyboot School for a really long time too. TreadRight really made it possible for us to further that work and create a more enriched partnership. My involvement with them really came through my work that I think is so important to do around preservation of culture and stories. People often don’t realize that something that has been deemed as fun for so long – like travel – could actually be very meaningful and can have an impact. Everything that we do in our lives, even if it’s a vacation, has to have impact. That’s the only reason worth doing it.
What would you say are your personal travel philosophies?
Travel is a huge part of my work. This is something I desire to do, because as an Indigineous person I wasn’t even allowed to speak my own narrative for so long in this country. So, when I started to travel around the world, especially for work, I was very aware of that. It changes the way you touch foot in different countries: although I always have a sense of awe and wonderment, I also want to speak to locals, and ensure that I travel ethically and bring home not just the stories that are easily accessible. And from the green perspective, I always think about the importance and impact of travelling. For example, I will choose not to have a drink on a plane if the only option is a plastic cup. There are many flight regulations and because of this I may not have a drink of water for four or five hours. That’s the conscious decision that I choose to make because it is comfort versus advocacy.
I think a lot of activists can get targeted for flying at all or doing work that can seem like a contradiction. I’m always thinking of ways we can stand up for things instead of being against them. I’m really against boycott culture. When we boycott things, we can have meaningful impact but we actually take our voice out of the conversation. It’s a focus on negativity, instead of positive change.
Speaking of advocacy, the climate change protests recently took over the streets all over the world. What are your thoughts on this movement?
I think a lot of young people are choosing to do it in a very positive way, through education. All the work that I do is for youth. I love working with them because they are fearless in their pursuit to protect or live their dreams.
That’s what activism should really be about: getting people who would normally never really hear you, to hear you, and then to choose to make changes in their own lives because of it. That’s powerful.
You are an activist, but you have also been involved in a lot of creative campaigns over the years. Recently, you were one of the faces of Sephora.
Yes! For me, it isn’t as much of a contradiction as it may seem from the outside because I consider myself a storyteller. So, my main goal is to find ways to take up space as an Indigenous woman and represent who we are in every single aspect humanly possible.
I didn’t grow up seeing myself anywhere in the mainstream media, in fashion or in beauty. It’s really hard to dream about it when you live in the world where you don’t see yourself. So, I was really thrilled to be a part of the Sephora campaign, mostly because I am alongside some of the most amazing humans, just a roster of incredible people. I was also given the opportunity to tell my real story. And my Mom is featured in that campaign, as well as the oldest living matriarch in our family, who is my auntie Mary in her late 80s. The Sephora campaign was really about showing Indigenous women and that we belong and that we are part of this country, part of the mainstream, and we matter and we exist, and we are beautiful just the way we are. To me, that is part of my activism. It was huge for me personally too, as I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for over 15 years. I was like: ‘I booked a national beauty campaign!’
It’s nice to do something with family members! You’ve also collaborated with your mother on a Canada Goose campaign?
I did and that was the first time I really realized the potential of representation. It was last October and it was an international campaign. That was one of the first times that an Indigenous model had been featured on international billboards, and I had so many young people write to me, saying they never thought they would see an Indigenous person on a billboard. (pauses) Ah, I still get emotional talking about it…
The very first billboard went up in Paris and to think that as an Indigenous woman I was there with my Mom, and also in a European country that for so long has sort of romanticized what Indigenous culture and beauty and representation are. To me, it’s way bigger than just fashion. It has so much meaning and importance. We are so far behind the rest of the world in so many ways in terms of being seen and heard. Small milestones feel like gems along the way.
And I’ve seen you on the runway this fall at Toronto Fashion Week, walking for Lesley Hampton. Was that your first time on the catwalk?
Yes, again, milestones! (laughs)
You’ve done a lot of styling in your career – and it was lovely to have you style yourself for this photoshoot with FAJO. A lot of your styling work started with music videos. What was that experience like?
Styling has been something I have been passionate about since my early teens. My sister is a musician, and she plays in a band called Digging Roots, which is also quite well-known in the Indigenous community. They are Juno Award winners. I’ve styled my sister for every single big thing she has done. In fact, I’m pulling Lesley Hampton today to style her for her Austria-Lithuania tour that she leaves for this afternoon.
And with A Tribe Called Red, I had just moved home from New York City and they reached out to me because they wanted me to dance in their music video. I remember I got a phone call and they were like: ‘Can you bring some of your own clothes and a few items to make it look like your own room. It’s three girls in their own room.’ And I said, ‘Does that mean you don’t have a stylist?’ They told me they didn’t, and they just wanted it to be authentic. I said, ‘I’ll go pull a bunch of stuff if you don’t mind,’ and immediately called all my connections. That video ended up becoming sort of a go-to aesthetic of what Indigenous young girlhood looks like in the mainstream right now. But it happened by accident, which is how I think all amazing things happen! The truth is to never be afraid to offer a skill that you think isn’t even wanted.
Speaking of styling, how would you describe your personal sense of style?
It’s like Indigenous athleisure couture. (laughs) Even if I’m wearing a sweat suit, I’ll have the most incredible earrings on. That’s Indigenous couture. It’s a $500 piece of beadwork with a Nike tracksuit. For WE Day, for example, I rocked a Lesley Hampton couture gown, fresh off the runway, with a We Day bomber and moccasins. That’s my favourite thing to do: I love to combine things that don’t belong together. I’m a person who is a thousand contradictions. That can totally be seen in my personal aesthetic and I’m always trying to make some kind of political statement whenever I can. I really believe in the power of messaging. With clothing, you can sneak in messaging on a T-shirt, and sort of take over the narrative if you don’t have the opportunity to use your voice. You can say it with something you are wearing, especially if people are going to take photos.
What are some of your upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
My partnership with TreadRight is getting underway and we are starting to solidify the work that we will be doing together in 2020. One of those projects, that I began in Australia in spring, is sort of coming full circle. It’s inspired by the StoryBoot school that runs here, which is a partnership with Manitobah Mukluks that teaches the traditional art of mukluk and moccasin-making at the Bata Shoe Museum. The new partners in Sydney and I will be able to further that work. I’m very excited to have a relationship with TreadRight where we are able to work together and it’s so successful that we get to bring it somewhere else to share it with Indigenous people across oceans. That’s been very special.
And I’m also in development for Season 3 of my show.
You have dipped your feet in a lot of very creative fields. What kind of advice would you give to someone who is just getting started?
For me, it’s about finding the golden thread. Growing up, my Mom was always telling me, ‘Be careful you don’t do too much because you are going to get exhausted – you need to focus on one thing.’ I came from dance, and then it was styling, fashion and journalism. For me, it wasn’t about doing too much: it was finding one thing that connects everything you are doing authentically. In my mid 20s, I found that storytelling was the way that I could describe all the work that I do.
I would say that if you are trying to dabble, you need to be in spaces that inspire you and be around people who inspire you, even if it’s terrifying. One of the first things that inspired me about fashion week was when I volunteered at New York Fashion Week. I was about 17 or 18 years old. It was at the very beginning of my career. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t belong here, what am I going to be doing volunteering at fashion week!?’ I was in dance school at the time and my friend Carla said you should do fashion week, and this is what everyone does.
The first show I volunteered at was Betsey Johnson and then I did Diane von Furstenberg later that day. It blew my mind. I never even thought I would get in the door of a fashion show. I was the one who put all the programs and Betsey Johnson matches and a single – she handed out a record to every person who was there – and I put them on all seats. I think it’s just those moments, when you are in the room and it’s not a fantasy anymore. You are there.
Surrounding yourself in a space where you don’t belong with people you aspire to be is very important. Put your phone down and go build human connections. Real networking is in the spontaneous, and not on LinkedIn or Instagram. We can use all those tools, but we need to remember to connect one-on-one.
Feature image credit: Blazer by Smythe, Mukluks by Manitobah Mukluks and renowned Metis artist Christie Belcourt (the latter were exclusively provided for this photoshoot and are due to be released soon).
FAJO would like to extend a special thank you to the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto for providing location for a large section of this photoshoot. Since 1962, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto has been a key meeting place for all people, of all nations, from across Canada and all over the world. As Toronto’s oldest Indigenous community organization and one of the original Friendship Centres in Canada, the NCCT provides social, recreational, cultural and spiritual services for the Indigenous community and visitors alike. NCCT offers a wide range of programs and services based on Indigenous cultural traditions and teachings. All are welcome. To learn more, visit NCCT’s website.