How many times have non-Native fashion houses or designers appropriated tribal looks for mass consumption and profited off it? Too many to count. Back in 2011 – when the tribal trend took off – Urban Outfitters outraged the Native community by marketing a line of “Navajo” prints. Sasha Houston Brown, an activist from the Dakota and Santee Sioux Nation, wrote an open letter to the CEO of Urban Outfitters saying:
“As a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as ‘fashion.'”
Or how many times have you seen a celebrity or hipster wear a Native American feather headdress in a magazine or at a music festival just to look stylish?
What about all those new age “hippies” that mix Native American shamanism with Hinduism or Buddhism while they take peyote and do yoga? To them it’s all the same, and ripe for the misappropriation – never mind that the two cultures could not be any more dissimilar.
Another stark example was at New York Fashion Week when London-based brand KTZ debuted their line, which was a “tribute” to indigenous people, but ended up ripping off Native designs instead. Marjan Pejoski, the Macedonian-born, Bali-residing designer for KTZ who created the line appears to have copied it directly from another designer by the name of Bethany Yellowtail.
For those of you who have never heard of Bethany Yellowtail, you’re not alone. I first read this story on Mic, and like many Americans, had no idea there were high-fashion Native American designers – until now.
Raised on the Crow Nation and Northern Cheyenne Indigenous reservations in southeastern Montana, Bethany Yellowtail established a curiosity for fashion in high school. Before starting her own line, she worked for numerous labels and designers after graduating from art school in Los Angeles. Yellowtail’s inspiration comes from the vision board she created while designing her pieces, which featured old black-and-white pictures of her grandfather wearing the yellowtail feather and her Aunt performing in a warbonnet during the 1940s.
“It’s beautiful to see the continuity of our people from then to now,” she told Mic. “I wanted to convey that with my collection — we’re still here, we’re still a reflection of our ancestors.”
Yellowtail’s work is a sophisticated melding of classic Native American designs that pay homage to her ancestors, coupled with forward-thinking, sleek lines. Yellowtail uses traditional ornaments like elk teeth, floral beadwork, and the unique hourglass pattern native to her Apsáalooke tribe. She also incorporates Native models like Jade Willoughby, an Ojibwe model from the Whitesands First Nation in Northern Ontario, Canada (seen below):
Best of all? Yellowtail’s collaborators are also Native: Thosh Collins, the photographer, is Onk Akimel O’Odham, Wah-Zah-Zi and Haudenosaunee. Martin Sensmeier, another model, is Tlingit, Koyukon and Athabascan. Video director and poet Tazbah Rose Chavez, is Nüümü and Diné.
They have all joined forces behind Yellowtail’s vision, a fashion collection whose goal is to convey distinctive Native American influence and history in the sartorial realm. What sets B. Yellowtail apart from others is that it is designed by a Native American taking control of their cultural identity.
Yellowtail explains to Mic, “…at the time there were no Native fashion designers. We don’t see Natives like that in media, or in typical mainstream roles. My family is mostly ranchers. My dad runs a cattle ranch. With the kinds of challenges and poverty we face on the reservation, I never thought of this as an option.”
Most of Yellowtail’s work is driven around the mission to fight cultural eradication and the propensity to treat Native people as if they’re absent or vanishing – a virtuous cause compared to the commercial motivations of most fashion designers.
“At this point, they’re taking our voices and our designs from us,” she tells Mic. “They don’t acknowledge us as living people and nations. This is not just fashion, it’s part of our tribal identities.”
The main issue is not about people copying Native American style and beliefs, but about hijacking a marginalized culture and twisting it for the sake of their own needs. If people are really interested in tribal culture and aesthetics, then buying from Native designers and not appropriating their beliefs is the best way to respect the culture.
Her ultimate goal is to create a network for Native American designers to thrive, support, appreciate, and respect each other’s craft. The abundance and variety of Native artistry needs to be seen, and they have a right to sell their own work and be recognized for it, instead of it being appropriated into cheap “Indian and Cowboy” designs for other cultures to appropriate.
For Yellowtail, it boils down to a simple truth: “We are the first designers of this nation. We are our own best resource.”
How many of you have bought “tribal” inspired outfits? Would you support Native American entrepreneurs? How do you feel about Natives taking control of their own culture?