Delina White: Celebrating Gender Nonconformity within Indigenous Fashion
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Gender Fluid Fashion

Delina White: Celebrating Gender Nonconformity in Indigenous Fashion

Rebekah Dunlap—a member of the Anishinaabe Nation from the Fond du Lac Reservations, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe—modeling an IAmAnishinaabe design. 2018. Photo: Dino Downwind, Dno.photography

In Lakota, the word was winkte, a contraction of winyanktehca, and it was used to describe any diversity within gender and sexuality in the community. Today, we’ve adopted an umbrella term that honors and embraces the sacred place Indigenous people who embody the spirit of two genders hold: the “Two-Spirit” identity. Used to celebrate resistance within LGBTQ+ Native Americans, Two-Spirit brings us back to a more Indigenous imaging of gender and presentation.

Though only recently crafted as a term by the Ojibwe at a gay and lesbian gathering in Winnipeg in 1990, a third-gender (or Two-Spirit) identity in Native culture goes back centuries, representing a rich history of gender nonconformity and expression. Aside from simply finding acceptance in tribal communities, Two-Spirit people were seen as balance keepers, holding significant third-gender roles in ceremonies, and often referred to as “dusk”—the balance between the “male” mornings and the “female” evenings.

On Thursday, June 13, the Walker’s Terrace Thursdays plays host to Indigenous Spirit: Gender Fluid Fashion, a celebration of nonconformity that highlights styles created by Native designer Delina White of IAmAnishaabe. Incorporating traditional and natural woodland influences of the Great Lakes, White’s latest collection features gender-fluid apparel worn by Two-Spirit models from across the Midwest. Minneapolis-based Lakota-born, non-binary artist Juleana Enright caught up with the White to chat about the inspiration behind this gender-fluid collection and the future of Indigenous fashion.


JULEANA ENRIGHT (JE)

A traditional Anishinaabe beadwork artist, you started developing this medium at a young age, starting a real connection to manidoominens, the Ojibwe word for beads, meaning “little spirits.” Can you tell us about where your love of beading came from?

Traditional Anishinaabe woodland floral beadwork on black velvet skirt. Photo: Amanda Hankerson Hunt+Capture Photography

DELINA WHITE (DW)

My grandmother taught me beadwork at the age of six. We lived in a two-room, tarpaper shack on the shores of Agency Bay, Leech Lake Reservation, in the village of Onigum. We had no running water or electricity, and she had very few material belongings. I noticed a little tin on the top of her shelf, and in it was mixed a bunch of beads and sequins. I loved the way they felt in my hands and between my fingers. She would sit and make beautiful flat-work stitch woodland florals, and I would string different patterns, bead by bead, with a single thread.

Delina White’s great-grandmother, Isabel Warren, and her grandmother, Maggie King, who taught her beadwork, as a young girl, 1908

JE

What inspired you to start this line? When and how did this idea come about?

DW

My daughters and I had done a five-gallery fashion show titled the Great Lakes Woodland Skirts in 2015. I provided education about the cultural importance of women and our connection to skirts—how we had always worn skirts. It was a revitalization of the cultural pride in reclaiming who we are as Native women. After that, some individuals were told that they couldn’t participate in ceremonies because they weren’t wearing skirts and—as Two-Spirits—they replied that they didn’t feel comfortable in skirts. My thought was that ribbon shirts could be worn instead of skirts. Boom, done.

Gayle Pruden—a member of the Anishinaabe Nation from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe—modeling an I am Anishinaabe design. 2017. Photo: Michelle Bohlen Campbell

Through conversations about traditional teachings and skirts, I was asked if I would make gender-fluid clothing. Many beautiful visions have come to me by mixing what has been described as “masculine” and “feminine” style clothing to create pieces outside of those labels.

I believe that fashion makes people happy; it allows people to let others know about themselves by the way they look and dress. Hairstyles, make-up, fragrance, tattoos: it’s more than just clothing.

JE

Why is creating awareness around Indigenous fashion and gender-fluid fashion important to you?

DW

As Natives, we are underrepresented. It’s my philosophy to represent all people in our community. I have Two-Spirit models in my fashion shows to acknowledge, recognize, and include. But my clothing isn’t separated into categories of straight or Two-Spirit. It’s just clothing that can be mixed and matched and worn by anyone.

JE

You’ve been on a journey for two years to develop this line. Can you talk about Two-Spirit relatives who encouraged you along the way?

DW

The feedback I was given from friends and relatives (who identify as Two-Spirit) is that it’s about time that we celebrate and highlight their beauty and individualism. When I was asked to create a gender-fluid line, I felt it was because of my creativity, style, and connection to our Native cultural values and beliefs. As a Native, I know a lot about what is offensive in stereotypes; I wanted to approach it in a caring and gentle way which honors identity.

Snowy White, Delina’s granddaughter, with two Fancy Dancers. Photo: Nedahness Rose Greene, Greene Photography

JE

Who influenced your artistic choices, and what was your research process for developing looks?

DW

My grandmother had a lot to do with my design choices. My mother had a lot to do with my character and what is important in life, making good choices. Everyone wears their finest. I am an Old Style Jingle Dress dancer, and I dance the way I’ve seen to preserve the traditional ways. My family and I travel throughout the US and Canada going to pow-wows, so we’ve met a lot of people from different Nations. Everyone is so different and yet very similar, like family.

Delina White Jingle Dress dancing

I also love to reference historical photographs so I can see secondhand how people lived and how their lifestyle affected the way they dressed. I like to incorporate contemporary style and fabrics from all over the world. Different fabrics for different purposes: flowy for a romantic look, wool for warmth. Especially living in the climate where we live, I try to keep it functional.

JE

Modeling this line are Indigenous Two-Spirit individuals from all over the region, including Two-Spirit educator, storyteller, and icon Geo Soctomah Neptune. How did you find the models to collaborate with for this collection? How do you involve the models in the process to determine each runway look?

DW

I put out a call on social media about a possible fashion show and received 45 applications. It was difficult to narrow it down to fewer than 10 models. I tried to get a variety of different looks—Natives of all colors, sizes, heights—to have a good representation of Native America. We became friends on Facebook and Instagram so I could get to know them a little better and have conversations. I can tell right away about a unique look and think about how I can envision that into the design.

Ziibiwan Mahgagahbow—a member of the Anishinaabe Nation, Canada—modeling an IAmAnishinaabe design. 2018. Photo: Ziibiwan Mahgagahbow

I think it’s a natural thing with me that I can look at fabric and instantly know who should wear it. I like to create the clothing based on how someone identifies and how that person feels most beautiful. I think the best way to approach personal issues of identity it is to be honest while being respectful and sensitive.

JE

The heart of IAmAnishinaabe is transforming traditional pieces into contemporary wearable art and creating fashions that both invite the wearer to express themselves and observers to be accepting toward others. How does this translate into your current work?

DW

The IamAnishinaabe brand is one of natural beauty, so I really find models because of their radiant beauty that shines from within. I make contemporary clothing with a traditional Native foundation. It’s very difficult describing what I do, without seeing it, but I design for the individual and their personality.

Snowy White modeling an IAmAnishinaabe design on the Walker terraces. Photo: Amanda Hankerson Hunt+Capture Photography

I choose colors, textures, and different trims that compliment both the fabric and the style of the clothing. I like mismatched, yet complimentary, like a composition. I love all the details as little magical surprises both about the design in the clothing and in the models.

JE

In your opinion, how does merging traditional and contemporary looks represent the future of Indigenous fashion?

DW

Blending the contemporary and traditional is a natural evolution. What’s important is to preserve the traditional. That’s the part that takes effort. We are beautiful people, and we’re fortunate to be here today because of the sacrifices our ancestors made and the sacrifices we make today. I want to remember that, and I believe all Natives feel the same way. It’s important to have more Native designers, those who can design with all different styles so that we represent in all areas of genres and lifestyles.

JE

How does this fashion line help to impact change in perceptions of both Indigenous individuals and individuals with gender-fluid identities?

DW

I don’t know how to change perceptions without having conversations, to educate people and to convince them to change their minds about the negative things or untrue things they’ve learned in the past. My clothing is meant to make the individual wearing them happy, to feel good about who they are, be confident and take pride in being a Native Two-Spirit.

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