When I met Sydelle Harrison for coffee, she brought her three beautiful girls with her. Her two eldest made each other laugh as they shared a pack of Nerds; the youngest was in Harrison’s arms for most of the interview, reaching for anything she could grab – including her mother’s hair. But Harrison didn’t skip a beat as she explained the impetus behind Kanaine.
Kanaine began as a response to being a new mother, and Harrison still needing something else to keep her busy. Inspired by hardworking parents, Harrison loves to push herself further – as a mother, graduate student, and as the founder and creator of clothing inspired by her own Native American roots.
Keeping Herself Busy
Harrison grew up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, with her enrollment at Yakama Nation in Washington state. She describes moving to Corvallis as a huge culture shock.
“I went all the way through [school] with some kids that I’m still friends with now, so coming here right after that was a very big difference. I struggled when I very first came here,” she says.
She left Oregon State University her junior year, accepting an internship and eventually a full-time job doing cultural resource management and consulting at the Hanford Site in Washington. After working there for five years, Harrison decided it was time to return to OSU. She finished two undergraduate degrees – one in public health and the other in anthropology – and then quickly entered the public health master’s program, never wanting to sit still for too long.
“I picked a broad master’s program purposefully because I like to be busy. I like to take on different projects, and I can’t do the same thing all the time,” says Harrison.
Between having three kids, finishing school, and working a fast-paced job, Harrison still found time to become a creative and talented seamstress.
From Consultant to Clothing Designer
Sewing started out as a hobby, something to keep Harrison busy as she adjusted to life as a new mom. She kept things simple at first, making square bags and learning how to follow a pattern using YouTube. Harrison had already been using wool from Pendleton Woolen Mills when her father shared something extraordinary with her.
“[My mother] passed away when I was three, but she had made me a little jacket similar to the ones that I make, out of a blanket. I didn’t know about this blanket until years and years down the road. I had been sewing some things and my dad finally shared it with me, so that was a neat connection that I had,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s mother was many things. She was an athlete and artist, and, like her daughter, she was also an entrepreneur and clothing maker. Her parents started a construction business before Harrison was born, picking mushrooms in the Blue Mountains and selling them to finance their new endeavor.
“I always liked that story,” says Harrison. “That’s kind of where I built my work ethic…I don’t really have a need for rest. I like to be busy, and I like to be doing things all the time.”
Her shop Kanaine – inspired by the ridge she grew up on – has gained popularity through word of mouth. Most of her sales come from Pendleton, from people she grew up with or who knew her family growing up. A lot of work is custom-ordered, including coats and purses, but she started making cowls more frequently. Having her products featured in the October issue of Cowboys and Indians Magazine was definitely a boost.
While people have repurposed Pendleton wool before Harrison, she wants to push her designs further. She’d like to create something for people who aren’t what she calls “Western-y” – people who may not have that Western vibe or be on their way to a rodeo. She wants her clothing to be for everyone.
Sharing Her Culture
I asked Harrison how she felt about people wearing her designs, modeling part of a culture that isn’t theirs. While she has feelings about it, Harrison tries not to go too deeply into this idea of cultural appropriation. Using Pendleton wool is something she thinks about, though.
“Part of using Pendleton is they use tribal names, but I can’t use their name. So, part of me is like, hey, but you got this from me. I follow the rules, but I have more of a sense of ownership and pride,” she says.
“My dad is also Korean and was adopted from Korea in 1960, so I’ve had plans and more of a desire to incorporate some of that side, though I know very little about it…But I think that’s also another thing that makes me feel more like sharing because I am multicultural, not just an Indian,” Harrison added.
When it comes to wearing this Native American inspired clothing, Harrison sees it as a celebration. She chooses to view things positively, to be on the other side of the argument. So, be bold and think about adding some Kanaine to your wardrobe. Harrison would love to see a little more Pendleton in Corvallis.
By Anika Lautenbach