‘A really natural fit’ Manitobah (Mukluks) returns to its traditional roots with grand opening at The Forks

First, Dawn Sinclair brings the burning sage to Manitobah’s entryway.

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First, Dawn Sinclair brings the burning sage to Manitobah’s entryway.

“We bless everybody that walks through these doors,” she says, wafting smoke. “We pray they have a safe journey, and they learn the lessons that they need to learn.”

She carries the sage-filled conch shell around the shop’s perimeter — over the displays of moccasins and mukluks and through the back, where shoeboxes are piled high.

“I cast all negativity out. I call in our ancestors,” Sinclair repeats.

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Dawn Sinclair, manager of Manitobah at The Forks Market, says she feels the presence of her ancestors in the 3,000 square-foot flagship store.

The smudging ceremony is a daily ritual at Manitobah’s first permanent store. The company — formerly called Manitobah Mukluks — is opening its flagship in The Forks Market today.

“I really am at a loss for words,” Sinclair said upon finishing her prayers.

“For us to come back here, and for us to be in this land, with everything going on across the country — with the residential schools, with all these things going on — we need something positive.”

Sinclair said she feels the ancestors’ presence. The Forks has been a gathering place for Indigenous communities for thousands of years. It was a trading post from 1738 through the 1880s.

“This is like the modern (version) of our culture,” the store manager said, looking around the 3,000 square-foot space.

Footwear made of deerskin, sheepskin and leather, some lined with furs, sit on display.

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Manitobah has grown to international proportions. Still, The Forks was Lor Brand’s top pick for a permanent location.

Indigenous workers staff the shop. Sinclair put in 16-hour days getting things ready.

“It is all worth it,” she said. “We have a platform to do something different, and this is it. This is magical.”

Passersby have poked their heads in since the store got its glass doors last week, Sinclair said. Some have witnessed smudging ceremonies.

Manitobah has grown to international proportions. Still, The Forks was Lor Brand’s top pick for a permanent location.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Manitobah’s marketing coordinator said. “(The Forks) was trade, it was a living space, it was really this community space for Indigenous people, and it has been for thousands and thousands of years.”

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Manitobah boots at the retail store at The Forks.

The Manitoba-made business also began via trading.

Beginning in 1990, Sean McCormick would trade furs and hides for handmade moccasins and mukluks.

McCormick is Métis. He saw a demand for authentic Indigenous-crafted shoes, so he launched Manitobah Mukluks in 1997.

“(Mukluks and moccasins are) such a big part of our material culture,” said Brand, who is Métis. “They’re not a closed cultural practice… (they’re) something (McCormick) could sell to non-Indigenous folks and Indigenous folks alike.”

Manitobah Mukluks began selling to gift and souvenir shops, local trading posts and companies like Teekca’s Aboriginal Boutique. Local artists would work on traditional shoe designs. As the years progressed, so did the styles.

“It’s a powerful feeling to put on a pair of mukluks (and moccasins) and be able to walk out into the world with them.”– Lor Brand

Popularity grew, largely in central Canada, Brand said. She got her first pair — tan moccasins — at around six years old.

“It’s a powerful feeling to put on a pair of mukluks (and moccasins) and be able to walk out into the world with them,” Brand said.

“It’s a huge sense of pride, having people who don’t know what (they are) walk up to you and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s beautiful, tell me about it.’”

Business skyrocketed in 2004 when supermodel Kate Moss was photographed in Manitobah Mukluks.

“It just kind of popped up in a magazine one day, which was incredible,” Brand said.

Moss apparently bought the shoes from a consignment boutique; a Canadian had brought them to London.

Orders across the globe flooded in. Manitobah went from making 1,000 pairs a month to 1,000 pairs a week, Brand said.

“It was a game changer,” she said. “It really did put us on a map.”

Business has continued to expand. Manitobah is in more than 100 retailers, including the high-end Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew.

The company processed its shoes in a Sutherland Avenue warehouse beginning in 2013. However, demand became overwhelming, Brand said.

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Manitobah carries footwear made of deerskin, sheepskin and leather, some lined with fur.

McCormick moved manufacturing to a fair trade footwear plant in Vietnam, Brand said. Local Indigenous artists still create the shoes’ designs.

“It was really allowing us to be able to compete with those big brands,” Brand said, adding the shift overseas keeps the shoes at an “accessible price”.

E-commerce sales are substantial. However, a permanent store means a place for community, Brand said.

A circular table takes the centre of Manitobah’s new shop. The company plans to host its Storyboot School workshops — where participants learn moccasin, mukluk and earring making, among other things — on site.

“I think that, for visitors to The Forks, once the doors to the store have opened, it’s going to feel like they’ve always been here.”– Jenna Khan, communications specialist, The Forks

Brand envisions artist showcases. A tattoo artist might come in and custom tattoo mukluks; another day may see bead customization, while another could involve burning patterns into deerskin goods.

“(The artists are) such a huge part of the Manitobah community that we want them to kind of be in the spotlight as well,” Brand said.

Events will be a mix of free and paid, she said. The grand opening, which includes hoop dancing and throat singing, will be free.

Manitobah’s values — collaboration, celebration of Indigenous history and culture — align with those of The Forks, said Jenna Khan, the site’s communications specialist.

“They’re just a really natural fit,” Khan said. “I think that, for visitors to The Forks, once the doors to the store have opened, it’s going to feel like they’ve always been here.”

Manitobah’s arrival comes before the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba’s knowledge centre, which will be unveiled later this fall.

“We want to ensure that we are being reflective of not only the history of The Forks, but of the culture of Manitoba and the diversity that exists here,” Khan said.

Manitobah sells local Indigenous artists’ products and has distributed $387,354 to artists since 2020, according to a sign in its new store.

The company is moving its headquarters to Johnston Terminal at The Forks. The boardroom space will be open for public booking, Brand said.

gabrielle.piche@winnipegfreepress.com

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché
Reporter

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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