How two Indigenous entrepreneurs are using the retail and music industries to get land back, for real

Vancouver-based Dakota Bear and Casey Desjarlais launched Decolonial Clothing and Land Back Records during the pandemic.

Dakota Bear

Credit: Adam Blasberg. Dakota Bear

Vancouver-based Dakota Bear and Casey Desjarlais launched Decolonial Clothing and Land Back Records during the pandemic

Most recording artists can point to a specific moment in music that changed their lives. For Dakota Bear, it was the premiere of 8 Mile, the 2002 hip-hop drama starring Eminem. “I didn’t really listen to hip-hop until I watched that movie,” Bear recalls. “It’s about someone who came from a household full of chaos and addiction using music to tell their story, and that resonated with me.”

The Nehiyaw musician, born and raised in Saskatoon, is a descendant of residential school survivors. “Everything that happened in those schools took a toll on our bloodlines, and I have done a lot of learning and healing,” he says. “That’s actually why I stepped into music and writing—as a form of healing and expressing myself.”

Today, Bear can identify the violent series of colonial actions that led to the hardships of his youth: land dispossession, the pass and permit system, the Indian Act, residential schools, the decimation of the buffalo, rationing turned government relief turned welfare. “It really is manufactured poverty,” he says.

But for a child, the systemic oppression wasn’t so obvious: what Bear saw was poverty, mental illness and family members struggling with addiction. “I didn’t have a lot of healthy role models, but everyone there was trying their best with what they had.”

At 16, Bear bought his first microphone, plugged it into his computer and started recording on his own. That same DIY spirit launched Decolonial Clothing, a brand he co-founded with his partner, Nehiyaw/Saulteaux artist Casey Desjarlais, in Vancouver six years later, in 2015. “We were making designs on a cracked-up iPhone with no data, drawing logos on napkins when we went out for supper,” Bear recalls with a laugh.

Like his music career (sparked by a need for healing), Decolonial Clothing was born of necessity: the couple was expecting a daughter. “I had a really hard time finding a job, or finding anyone who would give me a chance,” he says. “And me and Casey always wanted to create something together—to build something for our future and for our children’s future.”

Bear and Desjarlais started selling their hoodies, T-shirts, crewnecks and accessories on Facebook and at markets, officially launching the Decolonial Clothing website in May 2020. 

The brand’s graphic designs range from tributes to Indigenous historical figures like Big Bear and Goyahkla (Geronimo) to simple calls for justice (the Fuck Colonialism hoodie says just that). In less than two years, they’ve generated more than $500,000 in revenue. “We want to use what we have as a platform, as a vehicle to drive home what we have to say to as many people as possible while empowering Indigenous youth,” Bear explains.

And in his and Desjarlais’s newest venture, empowerment comes first. The couple recently incorporated Land Back Records, an Indigenous-led music label located in the upstairs of Decolonial Clothing’s warehouse. They plan to use it as a recording studio and mentorship space for aspiring BIPOC artists, where interested youth can learn the ins and outs of both the artistic and business side of the music industry.

Land Back Records’ goal is to support BIPOC artists and, ultimately, get land back for Indigenous folks. Literally. “We’re putting a portion of profits into Landback Society, and we are investing in real land—real estate—where we will build healing lodges, housing structures and safe cultural spaces,” Bear explains. This is a big undertaking, but according to the entrepreneur, it’s happening fast. “We have already laid a lot of this groundwork,” he says. “These plans, we’re not talking five years down the road; we’re talking more like one to two years.”

Also contributing to the reclaiming of land is the Circles Festival, an annual music event that Bear and Desjarlais founded in 2021. (That makes three enormous endeavours in the past two years, if you’re counting.) Last summer’s festival brought thousands to Chinatown’s Andy Livingstone Park, where the artist lineup included Drezus, Rudegang Entertainment and, of course, Dakota Bear. For the 2022 festival this August, Bear is in talks with 40 (Drake’s producer) and Jessie Reyez. “We’re anticipating 10,000 people,” he says. 

A star-studded event only means more funding for the cause. “That’s what land back is about,” Bear notes. “The revenue we generate, we’re putting back into the community.”

Healing generational trauma and breaking cycles of addiction is paramount in Bear and Desjarlais’s work: through their art, Decolonial Clothing, Land Back Records and the Circles Festival, they’re providing leadership and opportunities for Indigenous youth. 

Bear himself struggled with substance abuse as a young adult and became sober in 2017. “I started walking on what we call the red road—for Indigenous people, it’s a good path,” he says. “We can feel the effects of residential schools without ever having to be in one,” he adds, noting that his healing journey is what prompted him to gear his work toward social activism. “I no longer wanted to be a hip-hop artist that was just pursuing music, or an entrepreneur that was just pursuing clothing,” Bear says. “I really wanted to help.”