An Indigenous fashion model who went from a small Saskatchewan First Nation to the bright lights of Los Angeles says a childhood promise to his parents keeps him grounded in a tough industry.
River Thomas grew up on Saulteaux First Nation, about two hours northwest of Saskatoon. From a young age, he saw the effects of unhealthy coping mechanisms in his community. He wanted to be a positive role model, so he made a promise.
“When I was very young, I made a promise to my mom that I would never drink or do drugs,” said Thomas, while visiting home for the holidays. “And to this day I’ve kept that promise.”
He says his parents trusted him more, and he was able to be more independent after the commitment.
“I made that promise, and growing up, they always allowed me to follow that moral compass, and they were never really strict on me,” he said.
Thomas got his start in modeling from small beginnings.
“I was at the Frontier Mall in North Battleford, and my sisters and me were asked to model for a fashion show at the mall,” Thomas told CTV News.
He did the show, and never thought much of it until he was 20.
“I was approached by a lady named Tishynah Buffalo, she asked me to model in Regina for a fashion show. And since then I’ve been doing it.”
Thomas never saw himself as a model despite being offered contracts from modeling agencies. He knew he wanted to pursue education beyond high school.
Instead, he spent six years with the 38th Combat Engineer Regiment in the military reserves. Then after being discovered at a volleyball tournament, he was recruited to Olds College.
“Just last year I graduated with a Surface Land Management Diploma,” said Thomas. “I have this under my belt, I can start my career whenever I want. I can fall back on this. Now I can pursue this modeling stuff.”
Since moving to Los Angeles, Thomas has been all over the world, featured in Vogue Magazine, appeared in commercials, and met amazing people.
But he carries the responsibility of being that role model he always wanted as a kid, despite stereotypes.
“I walk in and there’s already 10 stereotypes about me, about my people based on ignorance,” said Thomas. “I choose the life that I live to break all those stereotypes. That’s why I stay sober, that’s why I keep my hair long.”
The young model recently learned an important life lesson.
“One of the most important lessons that we’re taught is everything that you do affects seven generations ahead of you. So we always look to the future,” he said.
“I don’t have any kids yet, but I have a bunch of nieces and nephews,” he said. “Everything I do is to show them that it’s possible because I never had anybody show me it was possible growing up in Saskatchewan.”
Thomas says it’s not the only thing, but choosing a sober lifestyle has helped him be successful in life.
“While you’re young, make that choice to be sober. It truly does help. It’s not everything, it doesn’t solve the puzzle, but it really does help.”
Thomas says he’s enjoying each opportunity as it comes in California, but he’ll never forget where he comes from.
“Somebody recently asked me: Where’s my favourite place in the world? I said home,” said Thomas. “I’ve travelled the world, but nothing hits like home. To have my people here, to have my family, my reserve where I grew up and my ancestors grew up. I truly love being home more than anything else in the world.”