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Kramer is delivering remarks at the press preview for "Native Fashion Now," the country's first major exhibit to showcase contemporary Native American fashion, on a chilly fall evening in Salem, Massachusetts. "Native Fashion Now" is in Salem until early March, after which it will travel to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. The exhibit features nearly 100 pieces of clothing and accessories made by 75 different Native American designers from the US and Canada.
The designers' styles vary widely, as do their backgrounds. You'll find an elegant evening gown by Dorothy Grant made of silk and tulle with red and black Kaigani Haida eagles printed on the skirt, and also a spandex bodycon dress by Whitefish Lake First Nation designer Derek Jagodzinsky that has Cree syllabics emblazoned on an accompanying belt. There's a woven wool tunic with fringe from Navajo designer D.Y. Begay; a bondage necklace made of Tahitian pearls and stainless steel from Pat Pruitt of the Laguna Pueblo tribe; and Christian Louboutin boots covered in antique beads from Jamie Okuma, a designer of Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock descent.
While some pieces look explicitly Native American ("made with handed-down Native techniques used for countless generations," says Kramer), others are more subtle in their interpretations. There's a tunic dress with an abstract pattern that vaguely resembles a totem pole made by Alano Edzerza, a member of the Raven clan of the Tahltan Nation; a floral lace dress trimmed with replica elk teeth from Crow and Northern Cheyenne designer Bethany Yellowtail; and a black clutch made of shiny calfskin leather with Seminole patchwork by Chickasaw, Creek, and Choctaw designer Maya Stewart.
"This is about celebrating the diverse, creative expressions of a very dynamic, living set of Native cultures through the lens of fashion," Kramer tells me at a cocktail reception before the preview. "It will help people shake off preconceived notions of what Native American fashion is and what Native style is."
The idea for the exhibit came to Kramer a few years ago when she traveled to Santa Fe, as she does every year, for the annual Indian Market, the largest Native American arts and crafts fair in the country.
"People are finally interested in our individual voices, and our voices are part of a new language that you didn't ever hear before. Because previously, we were being stomped on."
"I just started noticing that there was more and more emphasis on contemporary Native fashion designers and jewelers, and that they were pushing conventions," she says. "I've been seeing a really young, vibrant community emerging — designers who are creating haute couture and unique, one-of-a-kind ensembles, as well as an upsweep of streetwear. It's really a burgeoning community."
Several Native fashion designers who have pieces in the "Native Fashion Now" exhibit are present at the preview and make their way through the exhibit. Many get emotional when reflecting on how much they've had to go through to achieve this kind of recognition.
"People are finally interested in our individual voices, and our voices are part of a new language that you didn't ever hear before," says Patricia Michaels, the Taos Pueblo designer behind PM Waterlily who arguably became Native fashion's most well-known face after starring on Project Runway in 2013. "Because previously, we were being stomped on."
The Native fashion community is not new, though the buzz surrounding it is.
"We've always been here, but the internet has helped us get much more of a response," says designer Jamie Okuma. "Social media has really changed the landscape. You can be your own PR person and get visibility just by posting."
Okuma is one of countless Native American designers creating clothing and jewelry that draw inspiration and use designs from their tribes. While some have attended fashion school, many aren't professionally trained. Making clothes is simply a part of Native culture.
"A lot of Native Americans learn crafts from a very young age," says Jolonzo Goldtooth, the 28-year-old Navajo designer behind JG Indie. Living on his family's ranch on the Navajo's Huerfano Chapter in New Mexico, Goldtooth earns his income mainly by making traditional garb for his tribe, but he also takes personal orders for his contemporary line. "My grandmothers are seamstresses, so that's how I learned to sew, bead, and put garments together. We've always made our own clothing."
"I've been making clothes since I was five. Designing is in my blood," echoes Sho Sho Esquiro, a designer from a small Athabaskan tribe in the Yukon called Kaska Dena. "I grew up very old-school, where I cross-country skied to school and ate whatever we shot. Since my tribe is inland, we were always moving around and didn't have time to create crafts like baskets and quillwork like other tribes in the Northwest. So instead, we adorned our clothing like artwork. My people have been doing this for thousands of years. Clothing is so important to us that when someone in my tribe is cremated, we wear our finest clothes."
Many consider the late Lloyd Kiva New the founding father of contemporary Native American fashion. The techniques and skills that designers like Esquiro and Goldtooth were taught by their families used to be kept exclusively inside tribes. New, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, was the first Native designer to sell clothes outside of the Native community.
New opened a boutique to sell his own Cherokee-inspired clothing in Scottsdale, Arizona all the way back in 1945, and his high-end line Kiva was sold at stores like Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor. In 1962, New went on to co-found the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he taught scores of Native designers.
"Before New, there were Native women in the 1930s who were combining traditional design with modern fashion, but they weren't actually calling themselves ‘designers,'" says Jessica Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa who is a professor of Native American studies and the founder of the Beyond Buckskin blog. "He put Native fashion on the map and made Santa Fe the mecca for Native fashion. He helped create a huge wave of designers well into the ‘90s."
New paved the way for Native talents like Marcus Amerman, Jerry Ingram, and Orlando Dugi, as well as Virgil Ortiz, who worked with Donna Karan to design a Pueblo-inspired collection after Karan met Ortiz at the Sante Fe Indian Market in 2002.
Today, most Native designers sell their wares online, either on Etsy or through their own websites, rather than trying to get into the doors of big department stores or retail chains. This isn't just a matter of bypassing corporate bureaucracy nor is it reflective of their ability to actually get picked up by these stores. Many Native designers see their work as wholly unique, and while they are keen on making a profit, they aren't looking to scale up.
"We're not into mass-producing," explains Michaels. "There are thousands of mass producers out there. We are individuals."
"The pieces I make are special, handmade, and take like 300 hours to make," adds Esquiro, who has an evening gown constructed out of beaver tails, seal and carp skin, and rooster feathers in the "Native Fashion Now" exhibit. "Mass production isn't one of my goals. The world of fashion is becoming so disposable and I don't ever want my clothes to contribute to that. I don't want to leave that kind of carbon footprint."
Beyond Buckskin's online boutique, which Metcalfe added to her site in 2012, saw unprecedented sales this past holiday season. In fact, she says business has grown exponentially over the last three years as the tenants of Native fashion have gone mainstream.
"Movements like local, ‘made in the USA,' and ethically-produced are very much of the moment and they bring greater recognition to Native Americans because these are all standards we've always produced under," she says. "The artists I work with think of their clothing completely different than Western manufacturers. Of course, they want to make it big and have a big impact, but they are thinking of social impact, not about fame or economical domination. They want to bring more opportunity to Native people."
As the New York Times wrote in a 2002 obituary, New's impact lay in his "broad humanistic approach to the arts, stressing creative links to the traditional arts but urging students not to be bound by them and to reject stereotypical notions of American Indian art and culture." Despite New's influence, Native designers today say one of the main obstacles they face is stereotyping.
"Anthropologists were collecting feathers off of bare-breasted woman on a canoe and then their bravery was applauded," says Michaels. "People insisted on what Natives looked like: a woman sitting on a buffalo rug with the wind blowing in her hair. There was all this stuff that we were expected to reproduce as contemporary Native American designers, and if we tried something new, we were told, ‘Oh, who do you think you are? That's not Native enough.' I've been hearing that my stuff wasn't Native enough since I was 18, and meanwhile, in our cultures, everyone is celebrated specifically for individuality."
Metcalfe largely attributes stereotypes surrounding the Native American aesthetic to the work of Fred Harvey, who opened restaurants and hotels with shops featuring Native artwork and souvenirs along railroads in the early 1900s. Harvey built outposts every 100 miles through California, New Mexico, and Arizona on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway.
"I've been hearing that my stuff wasn't Native enough since I was 18, and meanwhile, in our cultures, everyone is celebrated specifically for individuality."
"Harvey had good intentions to preserve Native culture because there was tons of assimilation at the time and a lot of the pottery and weaving techniques weren't being practiced anymore," says Metcalfe. "But he also saw a potential for economic development because there was a clear market of white people wanting Native goods."
The English-born Harvey is credited with establishing American tourism in the Southwest during the turn of the 20th century, but Metcalfe says that though Harvey "pushed for the preservation of Native culture, the rest of the world became accustomed to the idea that there was one type of Native design."
These stereotypes have lingered up through today. While Kramer notes Native fashion goes "far beyond expectations of buckskin, feathers, and fringe," designers are often faced with pushback. "People look at my work and say, ‘Oh, that's so non-traditional. Where's all the turquoise and silver?'" says Kristen Dorsey, a 29-year-old jewelry designer based in Los Angeles.
Dorsey is from the Chickasaw tribe of the Southeastern Woodlands. She makes much of her jewelry using repoussé, a type of relief work popular in Native art in which copper is hammered and then hand-carved. Sitting inside the Peabody Essex gallery after the press preview, Dorsey is decked out in pieces from her latest collection; it's called "Panther Woman" and is inspired by a character from Chickasaw oral tradition that helped the tribe chase conquistador Hernando de Soto away from the Mississippi territories.
"I often have to go into Southeastern history 101. With each interaction with a potential client, I think, ‘How do I educate you on thousands of years of the history of a region in a sound bite?'" she says. "There's so much understanding that needs to happen about the individuality of Native culture and how innovation and self-expression is a tradition for us. We don't make the same thing over and over again. Culture does not exist in a box. It is constantly transforming based on what materials you have access to, what people you interact with. It's constantly changing."
While Native designers often take inspiration from their tribes, it's unfair to assume that everything they make needs to be rooted in Native culture, says Laguna Pueblo jewelry designer Pat Pruitt.
"We can choose whether or not to represent our culture," he says. "I don't want to present this false façade that there's a story behind it. I don't rely on that as an artist. Because sometimes there's not, sometimes it's just fucking cool! If I happen to use my culture, by all means I've been blessed, but I don't want individuals to be fooled in the sense that this is only where Native Americans get their inspiration. Because it's not. We don't rely on, ‘What does this mean?' But if it has nothing to do with my culture, people tell me it's not Native enough. Can't the necklace just be cool?"
Pointing to how some publications have covered the "Native Fashion Now" exhibit, Dorsey says that "reporters and many museum patrons focused their questions on my racial background — how much 'Indian blood' I have — rather than focusing on me as a designer and jeweler."
You can't talk about Native American fashion without discussing cultural appropriation. Native designs have been stolen and repackaged by corporate fashion brands for decades, and the problem is rampant on both the high and low ends.
Native designs have been stolen and repackaged by corporate fashion brands for decades, and the problem is rampant on both the high and low ends.
In 2011, Urban Outfitters sold underwear, earrings, flasks, socks, and tunics it labeled "Navajo." Forever 21 sold items labeled as Navajo that year as well. These items weren't decorated with traditional Navajo patterns nor were they in any way related to the Navajo tribe; instead, Urban and Forever 21 merely slapped the Navajo name on generic, Native-looking designs for effect. Urban eventually subbed the word "Navajo" for "patterned."
The next year, Asos debuted its "Go Native" line, which featured pieces it erroneously described as Navajo and Aztec. Jeremy Scott designed a collection for Adidas in 2013 that featured tracksuits and dresses covered in totem pole designs. This past March, DSquared2 presented a collection it called "an ode to America's native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe" at Milan Fashion Week. Designer Isabel Marant was accused of copying a design from the Mixe people of Oaxaca, Mexico over the summer; Marant is actually trying to claim rights to the design, a move that would force the Mixe to shell out money to sell their own work.
The misappropriation of Native headdresses is particularly prevalent. In 2014, for Germany's Next Top Model, Heidi Klum had contestants fly to Utah to model as indigenous people, complete with face paint, teepees, and yes, headdresses. Pharrell wore a feather headdress on the cover of Elle UK, as did Karlie Kloss in a Victoria's Secret fashion show. H&M was caught selling $15 headdresses in Canada. Headdresses were also seen on the runway at Chanel's Métiers d'Art show in Dallas.
"Native headdresses are not fashion — they are very sacred to us," says Esquiro. "Really only men wore them, and if a woman did, she was a chief. And a chief would have had to have earned each and every of those feathers, so when you see someone at a Chanel fashion show wearing one of them, I think it's disrespectful and in bad taste."
Cultural appropriation is certainly not unique to the Native American community nor the fashion industry, but the frequency with which fashion appropriates Native culture leaves experts baffled.
"It's about the intersection of aesthetic and spirituality," posits Denise Green, a professor in Cornell's American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, who also oversees the school's Costume and Textile Collection. "The designs involve beliefs about the world and why we are here. There are very spiritual inclinations that get articulated and you can feel it in your heart. That creates something very compelling visually, and that's why it keeps getting ripped off. This is very intelligent, highly developed, good design which has been negotiated since time immemorial."
Some believe the problem is a lack of education. If designers, editors, and other people in the mainstream fashion world knew, for example, that headdresses were sacred items worn only by tribal leaders, would they use them as they do?
"There's so much that's misunderstood," says Dorsey. "I think fashion can be this accessible medium and a way that we can educate the public and help them better understand our communities and be better members of their own communities. The fashion world really needs a dose of that."
The Peabody Essex Museum's Kramer agrees. "We need to help people understand that there is 500-plus years of colonization at play," she says. "These motifs and symbols might look at face value just like motifs and symbols, but it's become an exercise in dominant culture versus marginalized culture. And this is happening under the radar: you might not even realize this when you're buying that Forever 21 Navajo-inspired T-shirt."
"Ultimately, this is about people coming in and saying, ‘This is mine now,'" says Green. "It's about the ongoing process of colonization, a take-take-take mentality, whether that's taking people's lands, their homes, or now their designs. We live in an ongoing colonial world, where that mentality of taking without asking permission or without giving fair compensation still lingers. I'd like to think that mentality is going away, but the fashion industry is evidence that this entitlement is alive and well."
"It's about the ongoing process of colonization, a take-take-take mentality, whether that's taking people's lands, their homes, or now their designs."
There's little Native tribes can do when their designs, symbols, or names are used without permission. In 1990, the US government strengthened the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1935, which prohibits "misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States." The act makes it "illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States."
There are now constant busts relating to counterfeit Native items being sold in the United States. Last fall, the federal government arrested several New Mexican store owners for passing off Filipino-made crafts as Native; if convicted, they could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, it's far more difficult to protect tribes whose designs are copied or names misappropriated. As far as design-stealing goes, fashion is not protected under federal law.
"The laws are not set up to protect individuals or collective design," says Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee who received a doctorate in education from Harvard and is now a postdoctoral fellow of Native American studies at Brown. She runs the popular watchdog blog Native Appropriations. "The big problem is that there are no legal consequences. So if a designer steals something, they might get slammed in a few blog posts, but nothing will happen to them so until there's someone to actually report instances to, I don't think the tide will shift."
In 2012, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters for the brand's use of the tribe's name. Just three weeks ago, a judge ruled that the group has legal standing and can continue to pursue the suit. The case is unique, though; the Navajo trademarked its name in 1943. Most tribes cannot do this.
"In the case of my own community, ‘Cherokee' has been used and misused so many times that I'm nearly certain the trademark office would not grant trademark protection to the community at this point, as they would argue it is a ‘generic' term, not specific," says Keene. "There are several nations I can imagine this happening to as well. Then there is the complication of tribal names themselves. Who would get to hold the trademark for ‘Lakota' and be responsible for its enforcement, for example? There are many bands of Lakota, each with their own tribal enrollments, governments, and resources."
Native American insignia, emblems, and symbols can be trademarked, but Metcalfe says a designer could face serious backlash if they went this route, since Native symbols belong to the tribe as a whole: "It makes it hard for one entity to claim it without screwing over our relatives from other bands. Symbols belong to the community and they need to be handled delicately."
At the end of the day, it all boils down to: is it worth it? "Going after someone is a huge drain of resources, money, and time," says Keene, "and as we've seen with plenty of non-Native designers, most people are largely unsuccessful."
When it comes to appropriation, there are indeed some shades of gray, says Kramer — which is why her exhibit includes three pieces by non-Native designers. One is an Isaac Mizrahi totem pole dress from 1991. Kramer believes it's a piece that allows us to "discuss such a complex issue because totem poles are very specific to Northwest family history and while Isaac doesn't replicate them completely, he riffs on them."
If the dress were to hit stores today, people would be up in arms about Mizrahi's "riffing," just as they were about Jeremy Scott's totem pole designs for Adidas. But, Kramer notes, when Naomi Campbell wore the piece on the cover of Time, Michaels "saw a part of herself in this dress, accepted by mainstream America. She saw Native American culture accepted by mainstream fashion and for her, it opened the doors into the fashion world and it gave her inspiration to become a designer."
Where is the line drawn? Is there ever an appropriate way for non-Native people to draw inspiration from Native culture? Native American designers and academics agree it's important to make sure the Native community is benefiting in some real, tangible manner whenever its culture is invoked.
Kim TallBear, an associate professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta, says, at minimum, "something must be returned to the Native community. If you want to use a Native resource or design, you better be giving back to them in some way or another because you are taking what is not yours."
"Part of the trouble is that some Native American communities are very impoverished," says Green. "At the same time, you have huge amounts of money being made by people appropriating what's theirs."
Green cites Ralph Lauren, which knocked off Cowichan knits — and labeled them as Cowichan without any involvement from the tribe — just a year after it put out a catalog full of sepia-toned images featuring Native Americans as veritable props. "What Ralph Lauren could have done was to ask Cowichan women to knit those sweaters and to compensate them fairly," she says. "Then they could have called the sweaters Cowichan and they would have been! There are plenty of Cowichan women who knit for a living. They should have worked with them."
She points to a brand like Pendleton, which has been supplying Native Americans with blankets and garments for over 100 years. The brand has maintained a reciprocal relationship with Native tribes by trading with them and involving them in the design process.
Other brands seem to be moving in the right direction. In June, designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worked with Canadian Métis artist Christi Belcourt to produce nine looks for Valentino's most recent resort collection. Belcourt's work reflects the intricate floral beadwork Métis women are known for and she said Valentino went through painstaking efforts to accurately replicate the patterns from her painting "Water Song" that hangs in Canada's National Gallery.
The collection was met with plenty of praise, from both Belcourt (who said it was "refreshing" to "work with designers who respect the artist's work so highly") and sites like Bustle (which wrote that the collection proves "you can create a Native American-inspired collection the right, respectful way").
Green isn't entirely convinced though. Only a few months after its work with Belcourt, Valentino debuted a spring 2016 collection with what the show notes called a "wild, tribal African" theme and mostly white models wearing cornrows. While the Valentino designers told Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times that they were thinking about Africa and the need to "understand other cultures, not to colonize them," the pair did not work with African artisans.
Then there's the fact that Bethany Yellowtail of B.Yellowtail says her non-Native customers often ask if they're "allowed" to wear her clothing: "All the conversations about cultural appropriation have almost made people afraid of exploring our brands. It's generated all this negative discussion about our fashion."
"All the conversations about cultural appropriation have almost made people afraid of exploring our brands. It's generated all this negative discussion about our fashion."
Designers like Michaels note this is precisely why it's so important for Native Americans to continue producing Native fashion themselves, or to work directly with brands trying to make Native-inspired clothing. There are over 600 Native American tribes that are federally recognized in the US and Canada, and each one has different standards for what kinds of designs can be to be shared publicly and sold. Those within the communities know what is and isn't acceptable for mass consumption.
"Everything that is used in our ceremonies belongs to our village at large and can't be used, but I'm the one that actually knows that," says Michaels. "I spend a painstaking amount of time to make sure I am not selling what belongs to our village. I know that it doesn't belong to me, I respect the people."
"We are constantly thinking about maintaining our cultural identity," echoes Yellowtail. "I know I can't just replicate any designs I see, I know who it belongs to, and I know the story behind them."
For all the harm the copying of designs and misuse of tribal names has caused, it's also helped push Native fashion into the spotlight. Outrage leads to consumer education, and people are becoming far more sensitive to misappropriation.
"It's become a real point of conversation and I think that's a good thing," says Keene. "It's given people the vocabulary to talk about why it's wrong and hurtful, and empowered them to speak against it. In the past five years since I've been writing my blog, I've seen a significant shift in the way the public engages with Native designs. Now they say, ‘Buy this, don't buy this,' and that makes me really optimistic."
All the attention has helped also inspired many within Native communities to begin ventures of their own. "There's definitely been an upsurge of young Native Americans venturing into the contemporary fashion world," says TallBear.
"People want an alternative," adds Green. "For so long there was no acknowledgement of what was going on because this has been happening in fashion for decades. But now, suddenly, people are demanding that Native designers be acknowledged and they are taking to Facebook and other social media outlets to point this out. People feel ethically and morally concerned."
Blogs like Keene's Native Appropriations and Metcalfe's Beyond Buckskin have become widely read and are brimming with comments. The community has also seen the launch of Native Max, the first Native American fashion magazine. It was started three years ago by Kelly Holmes, a 24-year-old former model from a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The bimonthly publication profiles Native designers and artists and primarily employs Native models, photographers, and stylists.
"Growing up, I collected a lot of fashion magazines and I always hated that I could never identify with any of the people in them," says Holmes. "None of them ever looked like me and nothing ever represented my culture. This is an opportunity to tell our stories positively, instead of focusing on the usual poverty porn." The magazine was only available for purchase through its own site until now, but will be carried at Native-owned businesses around the country this year.
"It's a form of validation," Metcalfe says of Native Max. "We can share our culture now on our terms and people are saying, ‘Hey, this is cool, your culture is beautiful.'"
The fact that something like Native Max exists is proof Native designers aren't waiting around for the mainstream fashion world to accept them. They're forging their own paths instead. The same goes for what Metcalfe calls a never-ending supply of new, young Native designers to feature on her Beyond Buckskin boutique, and of course the cross-country tour of the "Native Fashion Now" exhibit.
As Holmes puts it, "Our designs have always been in style, and you can go to any mall or retailer to see just how trendy tribal prints are. But now, Native Americans are taking Native fashion back."
Chavie Lieber is Racked's features writer.
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