When Kashtin Apsassin started Ohtisii, he was interested in creating contemporary Indigenous designs centred around the art and culture of the Dane-zaa. When he made his first pair of earrings for his girlfriend, using thin pieces of red heartwood and a laser cutter, he knew he had something special.
“She was the one that kind of really recognized that people haven’t seen anything like it before,” says Apsassin. “Every time I’ve shown her a new design. She falls in love with them, and I give her a pair of every single thing I make.”
Apsassin’s earrings have been a huge hit, but he has big plans for his company. He says in the world of Indigenous art and design, the field of “contemporary exploratory” products is pretty sparse, and it’s his goal to turn Ohtisii into a well-known brand — “akin to an Indigenous Kate Spade.”
But it was only after he had spent time travelling and studying abroad in 2018 that Apsassin began reconnecting with his Indigenous heritage.
“I’ve been all over the world, but do I really even know where I come from?” Apsassin asked. “So I started to really try to reclaim that identity and get in touch with it.”
Apsassin is a member of Blueberry River First Nation, but he grew up visiting family in Doig River First Nations while living in Sexsmith, Alberta. He is Dane-zaa, which he says is part of the Athabascan language family, which is also related to the Dene and Navajo people. It was while reconnecting with his culture that Apsassin had the inspiration to create his design brand. And most important to the creation of Ohtisii was Apssasin’s late grandmother, Molly Apsassin.
“I grew up hearing stories about what my grandmother could do,” says Apsassin. “Knowing all of the medicine, knowing the land, knowing all of the [Dane-Zaa] language — fluent, knowing how to kill a rabbit by massaging its heart so it would die a painless death. All of these things.”
Many designs that Ohtisii uses in its earrings and woodworking come from Molly’s beadwork. Even the logo was based on the beadwork that she had done for Apsassin’s mother’s wedding dress. But Apsassin never had the chance to meet his grandmother.
“My grandmother’s life was taken from her before I was born.”
Her death, almost 30 years ago, was devastating for Apsassin’s community, which led to a rift being formed between him and his heritage.
But today, Apsassin is reconnecting with his community and family. This summer, he was able to go to Pink Mountain in British Columbia for the Blueberry First Nation’s second annual culture camp. There he was recognized as “the earring guy,” which he had brought as gifts. Through Ohtisii, his family was able to reconnect with the artwork and the memory of his grandmother.
“I get to be a part of something that is healing the community, that has turned her memory into something beautiful and not just painful.”