“I believe that fashion makes people happy; it allows people to let others know about themselves by the way they look and dress. Hairstyles, makeup, fragrance, tattoos: it’s more than just clothing,” says Delina White of IAmAnishinaabe. Niizho-Manidoog is an Anishinaabe word that refers to and honors those Indigenous people who embody the spirit of two genders. These individuals are said to have a “Two-Spirit” identity. The newest collection from the Native designer honors this sacred space of nonconformity, diversity, and resistance. On the occasion of Indigenous Spirit: Gender Fluid Fashion, part of the Walker’s Terrace Thursdays series in June, we invited the models into the Walker photo studio. This lookbook, shot by photographer Bobby Rogers with a visual treatment by designer Jasio Stefanski, showcases the details of White’s designs and the Two-Spirit models who bring them to life.
Geo Soctomah Neptune (Passamaquoddy Nation) is one of the many Niizho-Manidoog models animating Delina White’s Two-Spirit–inspired designs.
Geo created their own hair and makeup to complement this ensemble, drawing inspiration and influence from drag.
Birch bark is particularly significant to the Anishinaabe people. Among other utilizations, it has been used as paper, on which the Anishinaabe have recorded writings and drawings of sacred ceremonies. Hand-crafted by the designer, Geo’s earrings ground this design in specific Native practices. Their necklaces, too, have cultural significance: the red coral was acquired by the designer through trade with another nation, and the abalone shells were acquired from the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California.
Geo’s contemporary, modern boots were selected for their bright green hue, a representation of the forests of the Great Lakes region. While celebrating the biodegradable nature of cottons, White also likes to remain conscious of the longevity of well-made synthetics. A tremendous quantity of water is utilized in the production of cottons, and harmful effluents threaten the biodiversity of lacustrine communities.
Geo’s attire incorporates a plethora of materials acquired through trade between Indigenous communities and foreign traders and voyageurs, such as glass beads, brass bells, and copper. By including them, this design gives new form to the encounter between Indigenous and European cultures.
Aspects of White’s designs derive from purely utilitarian concerns. Geo’s fan, which features feathers from an immature bald eagle, is a traditional form of cooling among Native peoples.
Cecelia LaPointe (Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Keweenaw Bay Anishinaabe) wears a traditional woodland dance outfit, which—conventionally worn by males—is tailored to the Two-Spirit identity. The quahog shell jewelry seen here hails from the Wampanoag tribe and has traditionally served as a kind of regulated currency for Native peoples. Cecilia also wields a gunstock club, a traditional and ceremonial weapon, and wears an otter pelt wrap.
White has customized to reflect Cecilia’s specific Native heritage. The crane featured on the vest is a symbol of Cecilia’s clan, which denotes familial relationships, responsibilities, and personal characteristics. The wild rice motif on the apron references Anishinaabe creation and migration stories, while Cecilia’s ribbon shirt, as well as the rain and wave motifs along the vest and apron, commemorate the life-giving waters of the Great Lakes region. Contrary to popular belief, these floral motifs are worn by both men and women of the Anishinaabe.
The inclusion of fringe along Cecilia’s pants is another instance of White’s attention to utilitarian concerns. While fringed garments are considered fanciful and decorative today, the fringe traditionally served to wick away rain when dancers found themselves outdoors. The aesthetic appeal of the fringe—in emphasizing the movements of the dancers—is secondary.
Cecilia opted for more traditional footwear for this ensemble, which features intricate beadwork. The moccasins seen here were made by Madalene BigBear of the Pokagon Band of the Powatomi Indians. The Anishinaabe word for beads, manidoominen—meaning “little spirits”—describes the link between Cecilia’s footwear and her Native ancestry. The strawberries on the apron were inspired by the significance of the berry for Native women, who call it odemin: the heart medicine.
Niibin Sprague (Saginaw Chippewa) models a three-piece ensemble with traditional appliqué that demonstrably synthesizes masculine and feminine elements. His vest in particular features a border of men holding hands, which when juxtaposed with the deeply ornamental skirt produces a gentlemanly Two-Spirit image.
Niibin’s vest is made of sofa upholstery fabric, which the designer was immediately attracted to for its rich colors and its woven-basket appearance. The fabric of Niibin’s shirt is calico cotton—typical of Native clothing around the Great Lakes in the 1800s—and features a traditional maple leaf design. Calico was adopted during a period of fur scarcity, and Native communities adopted the material as an environmental response. Maple-tapping and the production of maple sugar are also important cultural processes: parables and oral history are passed down to Native youth during these practices.
The designer selected this fabric for Niibin’s skirt because the pattern of its embroidery is reminiscent of the original homeland of the woodland people. White throws the contours of the skirt’s design into relief using metal sequins, which are used extensively on traditional Native garments. These sequins were acquired by the Anishinaabe people from traders and voyageurs.
Niibin’s earrings are made of birch cut-outs, which hold a special place in Native tradition. Cut-outs have historically been used to preserve traditional patterns, which directly links Native communities today to their ancestors. White has a vast collection of birch cut-outs from which she produces jewelry.
Orion Dagen-Goodsky’s (Bois Forte Band of Chippewa) ensemble comprises of a skirt paired with a ribbon shirt, based on traditional Ho-Chunk style of dress. Her earrings are dentalium shell, acquired through trade with the Yakama peoples of Washington, and mother-of-pearl.
The sunflowers in Orion’s hair are inspired by the Post Malone song “Sunflower,” which the model walked to during the Walker’s recent fashion show.
Orion’s shirt, a traditional ribbon shirt, is in a babydoll style to emphasize her femininity. The demure blouse with large, ruffled sleeves is characteristic of Ho-Chunk clothing.
Orion’s outfit is adorned all over with traditional woodland embroidery. White then added her own beaded embellishments and silver ring brooches in order to customize the fabric for Orion.
White considers Orion’s ensemble as a merging of the masculine and the feminine. The traditional ribbon trim that features on the separates is meant to convey the unity of the outfit, and of the Two-Spirit identity. The silver ring brooches, too, are used to this effect. Originally acquired from French merchants, the brooches are now traded between Native women as gifts of friendship.
Special thanks to Joy Campaigne (assistant), Ashley Headbird (backstage manager), Sage Davis (model coach), Gilbert Lasley, Jr. (lead hairstylist), and Valerie Rodriguez (hairstylist and makeup artist) for their efforts in making Indigenous Spirit: Gender Fluid Fashion a reality.