We Can't Talk About American Fashion Without Talking About Native American Designers
"Our people are the first American designers," said designer Bethany Yellowtail. She's speaking to me on Zoom from her home in Los Angeles where she has been working for the last year. Bethany is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and was raised on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Like many Native designers, growing up around the beautiful regalia of her tribe inspired her journey into fashion design.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus hit the United States, she was forced to not only close the office in L.A. that she had worked for years to open, but to switch up her business strategy completely. As many factories in the city pivoted to making PPE, she decided to work with them to provide for Native people across the country who were among the hardest hit by the coronavirus. Over the course of the year, she made over 100,000 masks emblazoned with her tribe's symbol, the morningstar. It was a source of pride in a devastating time for her and her community.
According to The Guardian, an estimated one in every 475 Native Americans died from Covid-19 between March 2020 and January 2021, which is more than twice the rate of white Americans. While many indigenous nations came together to help one another with resources and aid, the devastating effects were substantial: Families were left without loved ones, including many of their elders and teachers who help pass down their cultures through generations.
Within this unthinkable tragedy, though, came a small sign of progress. The Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 helped to bring a spotlight to the inequality indigenous people have also faced for centuries. That inequality — from limited access to healthcare to poverty created by federal mismanagement of indigenous lands — created an environment where Covid-19 disproportionately impacted their communities.
As advocates of the movement for racial equality began learning about the richness of native cultures, they channeled their support through investments in indigenous companies, including indigenous-owned fashion brands. For designers like Bethany, this influx of attention has been a way to reclaim pieces of her culture that have so often been appropriated — think "Native-inspired" prints on T-shirts — and tell the story of her people and who they are today through her art.
At the same time, continuing to make clothing that pays homage to tradition and uses techniques passed down through elders is a means of protecting the culture at risk of being lost with the overwhelming death rates in the Native communities.
Ahead, we talked to three designers about what this past year has been like for them, and how they are using fashion to preserve, celebrate and share their culture — on their own terms — with their communities and with the rest of the world.
When did you decide you wanted to be a designer?
I grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation, which is in Southeastern Montana. I come from a very rich vibrant community that is full of textures and beautiful colors. It was normal to see relatives making things on the kitchen tables. One of my earliest memories of making my own regalia is when my auntie brought some material to our house and she sat with me and my sister on the floor and we learned how to fringe shawls. When I got into late middle school, high school, my home-ec teacher saw that I could sew really well, she told me that I could have a career in fashion.
We don't see Native people in fashion, and for the first time, I realized that my community could be represented. I moved to Los Angeles and went to FIDM where I learned the nuts and bolts of garment making. But it was also there that I saw collections that took aesthetics of native identity and culture. At that time I didn't have the language to speak up for myself when I saw this type of appropriation. But when I went home, I saw the drastic inequality on my reservation and something just didn't sit right. So, with the help of my father – who sold his cattle ranch equipment to help me get a loan – I started my business, b.Yellowtail, selling my designs as well as [designs] of other Natives.
How did Covid-19 impact you and your community?
It hit our tribe really, really hard and devastated our community. Crow and Northern Cheyenne, we lost a lot of people. My grandmother was in the hospital for eight weeks and she's still recovering.
But I'm the type of person where I can't just sit and watch it happen. Fortunately, we have an amazing relationship with a manufacturer here in Los Angeles and when things shut down, he converted to making PPE. We just turned our fashion abilities into making masks and thankfully we were able to get fabric donated from Patagonia and Nike. I think for the Navajo Nation alone, we [gave away] 60,000 cloth masks. In my tribal community, we've supported about 50,000.
I was also slated to have a collection come out this spring. When Covid hit, we just halted everything. Thankfully we were able to shift, and then this past fall, in November, the collection came out and it was the best-received of all my collections. And it was also a collection we created in collaboration with our community. We have an exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago called Apsáalooke Women and Warriors. And it tells a story of our people from our creation story to where we are now.
What are you wearing in the photoshoot?
The green dress features our signature textile art. It looks like polka dots but it's actually a motif of an elk tooth. Elk's teeth are really significant culturally to tribes in the Northern Plains tribal region, specifically Crow and Cheyenne and Lakota. Elk teeth traditionally were a sign of wealth, and in the old times, pre-reservation era, elk teeth were stitched on wedding dresses. The male groom would create it, his family would make it for the bride and it'd be like a dowry, but as a gift to the wife. An elk tooth signifies that they're providers and good hunters and can provide for the family because each elk only has two ivory teeth on it. To have a complete dress you need 500 elk teeth to be proper. So having the most elk teeth in the ivories is just like you're rich, you're wealthy and you can provide. My family, we have one from my great-great-grandmother from late 1800, and it's full of real elk teeth, it's so beautiful.
The earrings are from one of our collective artists, Alaynee Goodwill. She's Dakota Sioux and Lakota. And the white shells that are on there are dentalium. Dentalium shells are an actual shell, but it was used as a form of commerce for trade in the Northwest, and then it moved across the Plain. So you'll see it pop up in old-time photos and we obviously still use it. Now it's transformed into more modern earrings.
Then the floral motif on my purple dress is actually the same motif that's on my moccasins. My moccasins were designed for me by an Apsáalooke (Crow) artist, Nina Sanders. She was doing research at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian and saw that floral designs with a little strawberry on them would show up in the museum collections, old photos, and on regalia connected to Yellowtail women. And she said she started having dreams about strawberries and she's like, "I just knew that I needed to design this for your moccasins."
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist and designer?
It's just been something that I've grown up around my whole life. My mom was a graphic designer. She worked for MCA Records and made album covers for some really amazing bands out of the '70s. My grandmother was a painter, so art was just a part of life since birth. But it was really when I began dancing at pow wows [that I became interested in being a designer]. The first one I attended was at my grandmother's reservation, the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho.
My very first time dancing I was in street clothes, but I'd seen everybody's beautiful outfits and knew that's what I wanted to do. It requires a lot of work — beadwork, sewing; everything is made by yourself and your family. So that's basically where it started, so I could get out in the pow wow circle and dance. I've pretty much had a needle and thread in my hand ever since.
How do you think your designs represent your tribe, if at all?
I don't speak for my tribe. Who am I to have that responsibility? There is a whole tribe of people. I don't design anything super specific, because it belongs to a lot of people. I just can't take ownership of those traditions. It's always a nod to this specific design element of my tribe and that is how I choose to honor my people in my fashion work.
Can you talk about the pieces in the photoshoot?
I'm wearing a dress that is based on a traditional silhouette, they're called wing dresses. It's a very simple cut but very specific tribe to tribe. I just love color, I love different textures, different fabrics, and that's how I created that dress, just as a nod to a traditional dress. The moccasins I made in my early twenties and are all fully beaded. I'm wearing antique cuffs, and I'm holding a bald eagle tail fan. My cousin [pictured on the right] is wearing a couture piece based on my fall ready-to-wear collection [for my eponymous brand].
What is something you want people to know about having a career in fashion as a Native person?
There is this narrative, specifically as a Native person, that you have to leave [the reservation] to accomplish your goals. I find the most amazing accomplishment for myself is that I can do everything that I'm doing right here at home, on my reservation. My kids see that. I'm here to say yes, goddamnit, yes you can. You can do anything you want. As long as your heart is there, and your mind is there, and I just feel that I couldn't ask for anything better for me to be able to raise my kids here, and have them see that they don't have to leave here in order to be successful.
Can you tell me about your background and why you began designing?
I am A Tlingit, Filipina, and Kanien'kehá:ka woman born into the Raven moiety, Copper River Clan, House of the Owl. My Tlingit name is Keixé Yaxtí, meaning Morning Star. I was fortunate enough to have a mother and grandparents that were traditional knowledge bearers. I spent a part of my childhood with them in museums' deep archives where they would identify artifacts. Within these deep archives, I marveled at the craftsmanship of Northwest Coast Artists. The beadwork, the weaving, and the symmetry in Formline artists' were incredible.
Our artists were so innovative — they always found ways to shape and work with new forms and textiles, including wood, mountain goat wool, animal skin, silver, gold, shell, and bone. As someone that has struggled with mental health throughout my life, I began practicing art and design as a way of attempting to translate the resilient components of our culture: love, compassion, clan relationships, matrilineal power. It is humbling to make a tangible translation of concepts that are sometimes intangible.
How has Covid impacted you personally? How has it impacted your tribe?
Covid impacted my family in 2020. During the shelter-in-place mandates, my husband was unable to work in his dental practice for several months. I was still working on my Masters of Public Health while also working part-time for a non-profit. Our finances were the galvanizing need behind diving into jewelry design. My village and tribe implemented protective orders because the positive cases of Covid were by people traveling to Yakutat from outside. We didn't go back home in 2020 as a way of protecting our loved ones and I missed my family and the land desperately.
How do your designs push your culture forward?
Our world needs compassion and understanding, and empathic communication through cultural art can help with that. Art and design are tangible expressions of emotion and culture and they can translate important social and global topics such as climate change, missing, and murdered indigenous women and girls, two-spirit people [a colloquial term for LGBTQ-identifying people]. In some ways, the pandemic has amplified a scarcity complex — a lot of people are hurting in so many ways. I have witnessed, and experienced communities of color react with lateral violence. In counseling with a trusted elder and artist, Robert Davidson, I believe that some of this violence comes from a place of deep intergenerational pain. I have found myself going through a grieving process this year to let go of profound internal pain so that I attempt to call our culture forward and create from an intentional place of transformative kinship. If we can draw from our ancestors' strength and resilience and intersect with transformative kinship, we can be indigenous futurism.
Do you ever have non-native customers concerned about appropriation when buying your work?
It is not uncommon to have non-native customers concerned about appropriation when purchasing native art. In general, if an indigenous artist creates with cultural knowledge, they will not sell ceremonial items to non-indigenous people. We recommend purchasing directly from indigenous artists and businesses. Our friends at Eighth Generation have coined a phrase we often use: "Buy from Inspired Natives — not from native-inspired brands."
Can you explain what you are wearing in your photos? What if any significance do these pieces have?
These photos display prototypes I have been designing within my reflective journey. The turquoise moons were a collaborative project of my design and with the assistance of a mentor, their friend Mary Jane Garcia crafted the earring. Mary Jane is Diné, Tl'og'i (Zia People), and Kinyaa'áanii (Towering House People) Clan. It was a project-based on healing and kinship. The photo with the drum communicates my relationship with my late grandfather. I inherited his drum, and the earrings I designed [for my brand, Moonture] tell the story of the Northern Lights. My grandfather taught us that the Northern Lights are the spirits of people who have taken their own lives. Within the Northern lights' colors, you see spiritual movement, and the green color is the Moss that has grown upon them. Creating this design was a way of expressing my mental health journey this year and remembering that we need you here.
What are you hoping for in the next year with both your work and personally?
The survival of indigenous art has been like a Phoenix, and I believe that the future of indigenous fashion will continue to surge if our collective burning hearts remain true. It's incredible to think about everything indigenous people have gone through in the past few centuries: genocide, slavery, rape, segregation, racism, discrimination — but we have not only survived — but much of our art is thriving. I hope to create from that thriving place and dream of designing an apparel line at the intersection of Tlingit culture and sustainable material. I am slowly teaching myself the design and craft of heirloom and fine jewelry utilizing materials like Alaska Jade and Walrus Ivory gifted to me by the Apangalook family and my husband and I are learning under the mentorship of Anna Sheffield. These goals come back to my hopes of contributing to cultural compassion and understanding, and empathic communication through transformative art.
Photographs by Cameron Linton, Erica Elan and MadMen Studios. Production by Kelly Chiello.