Native American Fashion Goes 'Beyond Buckskin' And Headdresses
Condensed by Native Village
Growing up in rural North Dakota, Jessica Metcalfe relied on magazines for her pop culture fix, but she never saw anyone in Seventeen who looked like her. Now an adult, Jesse is changing that by promoting Native American fashion designers and artists.
Jesse began in 2009 with Beyond Buckskin, a blog that highlights Native designers in media and pop culture. When she added an online boutique, Metcalfe found herself at the center of a growing movement to reclaim what fashion labels "Native American."
Surrounding her are Native designers, stylists, photographers and others focused upon authentic and modern Native fashion. Their work reflects the diversity of Native American peoples, and their message is clear: true Native fashion is more than what's found at Urban Outfitters or Forever 21.
"Creativity is our tradition and there's a lot of talent in Indian Country waiting to be exposed," said Metcalfe, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe.
The clothing and jewelry is meant to appeal to wide audiences, even if people don't know the significance of a pattern or design.
"These are not your stereotypical Native American designs," said Shelby Tisdale from the Autry National Center, a Native American history museum. "They're very contemporary, which is the point: to present new visions of what Native American fashion means,"They incorporate designs that have a lot of meaning to them, but to the average viewer they might just look like a dragonfly or zigzag lines, and that's OK."
Metcalfe was a guest curator for a Native couture show at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe when Tisdale was the museum's director. Metcalfe was completing her dissertation about modern Native American fashion.
"She's done a fabulous job of researching Native fashion's roots, but now she's taking it into the 21st century," Tisdale said. "She's moved it into the digital age, which not might seem like a big deal, but it's new and forward thinking for Indian Country."
Earlier this year, Metcalfe staged a photo shoot of the latest looks in Native fashion with fashion photographer Anthony Thosh Collin and L.A.-based designer Bethany Yellowtail. The result was the Beyond Buckskin Lookbook -- the first compilation of modern Native fashion produced exclusively by Natives. They launched the book in March at the Reservation Economic Summit in Las Vegas.
"The lookbook is a brilliant indigenous response to the rip-offs being marketed in mainstream media," said Valerie Taliman, West Coast editor of Indian Country Today Media Network. "Here, you have a collection of 17 Native artists with all Native models, photographers, graphics artists and business management -- the whole package on their intellectual and cultural terms."
The jewelry is more than turquoise and silver. Metalsmith Kristen Dorsey creates pieces that honor the aesthetic traditions of her Chickasaw people. She works with copper and uses the same techniques as her ancestors. Her "serpent cuffs" resemble reptile scales and are adorned with black freshwater pearls. The scales refer to a deity from southeastern Native American spirituality; the pearls were harvested from the Mississippi River watershed where her tribe lived before the Trail of Tears.
"If you have a family or tribal connection it becomes very personal," Dorsey said. "It's more than making jewelry; it becomes working for a culture that you want to pass on to future generations."
Jamie Okuma contributed two skirts and a jacket to the lookbook. She began working with beads and sewing as a child on the La Jolla Luiseno Reservation in California. At 22, Jamie earned best in show at New Mexico's Santa Fe Market, the largest crafts fair in Indian Country. She makes beaded high heels, colorful jackets and dresses that evoke the patterns of the Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock.
"Clothing is wearable art and I want to use my skills to create something beautiful that reflects the cultural heritage of my tribe," Okuma said.
Okuma said it's fine if people want to interpret Native patterns and motifs. "As long as they understand the importance of the symbols or patterns being utilized and they do so in a tasteful way, why not?" she said.
In major stores, Native fashion is most likely "Navajo-inspired" prints, feathered headdresses or fake turquoise jewelry. The lookbook offers authentic, modern Native imagery, designer and co-creator Bethany Yellowtail said.
"It's disheartening to see Native American fashion as cheap knockoffs," Yellowtail said. "To change that, we have to be the voice for what Native American fashion is, instead of just complaining about it."
Bethany grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and learned traditional beading and shawlmaking from her aunts. A high school teacher helped her find a design school in California, where she broke into a career as a pattern maker. Now she creates designs for mass market retail brands and also for her own line inspired by her love for Native culture and high-end couture.
Yellowtail hopes other Natives follow their passion and prove that Native Americans are a thriving, modern people with plenty to contribute, especially in the fashion world.
"When I was in high school I never imagined that I could be a mover and shaker in the fashion industry as a Native woman," she said. "But now that I'm a part of the industry, there's this window of opportunity for me to be a voice for our communities."
Village © Gina Boltz
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