Cree entrepreneur creates new trade routes for Indigenous businesses

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Cree entrepreneur Mallory Yawnghwe stands in front of a map of Canada. It’s filled with Indigenous place names—and their meanings—from coast to coast to coast.

“There’s amiskwaciy-wâskahikan,” she says, pointing to what is also known as Beaver Hills House or Edmonton. “This was the hub of trade and commerce for so many nations.”   

Cree, Blackfoot and Nakoda were some of the First Nations who used to gather along the North Saskatchewan River to trade goods before the arrival of European explorers. 

The map hangs on one of the bright blue walls of Indigenous Box, an online business founded by Yawnghwe and her husband, Kham, in 2021. In 12 months, they’ve grown their company from a $5,000 start-up grant to $1.3 million in sales, she says.

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A finger points to amiskwaciy-wâskahikan on a map of Indigenous place names in Canada.
Mallory Yawnghwe points to amiskwaciy-wâskahikan on a map, Coming Home to Indigenous Place Names in Canada. The map design is © 2017 Canadian-American Center, University of Maine.

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Helping Indigenous businesses thrive 

Yawnghwe, 35, is part of a new generation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit entrepreneurs creating their own trade routes. Each one of Indigenous Box’s packages features several products by artists and businesses across the country, such as soap from a Mohawk maker, dried bison meat from Bigstone Cree Nation, or books by the late Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamese.  

Customers can choose from a variety of themes—including a self-care package and one filled with baby gifts—or subscribe to four seasonal boxes. Yawnghwe’s company also offers a corporate gift service and recently filled an order of 7,400 packages for a global firm. 

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“Every box that we create puts money back into the pockets of grassroots entrepreneurs and small, medium, established businesses,” she says.

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“That's what it's all about—creating the community and the foundation to allow these businesses and us to thrive. It’s not about return on investment, it’s about impact and that’s what makes it different from other businesses. It also provides representation for so many young people. I grew up not seeing myself represented in modern commerce or marketing. You’re starting to see it now.” 

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An Indigenous Box logo sticker sits on top of a scarf decorated with flowers.
Kokum scarves, traditionally worn by Indigenous grandmothers, are some of Indigenous Box’s most popular products. These scarves also honour the longstanding relationship between the Indigenous and Ukrainian communities. Courtesy of Katanya Timinsky.

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A row of cardboard boxes packed with goodies hidden by tissue paper.
Prepping some Indigenous Box packages in the company’s warehouse. Courtesy of Katanya Timinsky.

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Making connections

Yawnghwe grew up on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, about two hours northeast of Edmonton, and moved here in her teens. She credits Braided Journeys, a program for Indigenous students at Edmonton Catholic Schools, for helping her stay connected to her culture and introducing her to a network of creative and supportive individuals. 

“When I first came to Edmonton, I didn’t realize there was such a huge population of Indigenous people,” she says. “When I started to go to high school at St. Joe’s, I started to dance pow wow and I became part of this bigger community of people that wanted to see you succeed. Pam Sparklingeyes created the (Braided Journeys) program and has influenced so many lives of Indigenous youth in the city.” 

Yawnghwe is now doing her part to help Indigenous youth. Her company recently bought 1,500 bags of sweetgrass mineral bath salts created by students from amiskwaciy Academy, a school for Indigenous students in Edmonton. They created the product under the guidance of their teacher, Carrie Armstrong, who runs her own business, Mother Earth Essentials. 

“It was an incredible experience for our students,” says Armstrong. “They worked on the business from inception to selling a final product. They were really engaged in the process and very excited when we made the big sale of 1,500 bags to Indigenous Box. We made a good profit that went into the school to pay for future special events for our students.” 

Yawnghwe gets emotional when she hears stories like these. “It means a lot to be able to make even a little difference,” she says. “I’m a helper, my dad is very much a helper in our community and sort of instilled in me that whatever I do, should be for the benefit of our people. Even when I went to university, I knew that whatever I learned wasn't just going to be for me to hold.” 

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A woman stands between two men in headdresses with a third man on the right.
Mallory Yawnghwe, second from left, and some of her champions. Courtesy of Edmonton International Airport.

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Pictured above from left: Chief Eric Shirt from Saddle Lake Cree Nation; Mallory Yawnghwe; Chief Tony Alexis of Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation and Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Grand Chief; and Chief George Arcand, Jr. of Alexander First Nation. 

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Untapped potential

In fact, Yawnghwe came up with the idea for Indigenous Box while finishing her studies in supply chain management—the movement of goods and services—at MacEwan University. “The traditional trade routes of Iindigenous people across the continent are the original supply chains,” she says. 

In March 2021, she launched the business in her basement with the help of a $5,000 grant from a start-up foundation. She sold out of her first batch of boxes in four days, the next in 24 hours—thanks to her network of Indigenous connections and social media. 

Four months later, Indigenous Box began moving into its current warehouse at the Edmonton International Airport’s Sustainability Campus. Yawnghwe is grateful for all of the support—from Indigenous creators and customers; from local champions such as the airport and Explore Edmonton, a tourism organization for the city; and from corporate Canada. 

“It’s like this movement, or convergence, of people wanting to make change in a tangible way right now,” says Yawnghwe.

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“I think that we're starting to see that Indigenous people are seen as equals, we're seen as collaborators, we're an untapped potential that can contribute to the greater Canadian economy.”

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