Amber-Dawn Bear Robe is a Santa Fe–based art historian and curator from the Siksika Nation in Alberta, Canada. She currently teaches Native art history in the Museum Studies department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where she produces the annual Indigenous fashion show for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts.
Indigenous design is the original fashion of North America, reflecting a diversity of personalities, world views, beliefs, and epistemologies. Native North Americans, into the early 19th century, were forbidden to create—and punished for wearing—Indigenous dress. A shift in attitude towards Native Americans and their style happened in the 1940s, when, for example, the “Squaw” dress, inspired by Navajo textiles, became widely popular in the Southwest and beyond—an early form of appropriating Native design. In the ensuing decades, appropriation of Indigenous fashion grew into a big business, one that did not benefit Native peoples.
Ralph Lauren’s 1981 Santa Fe Collection, for instance, was a hodgepodge of borrowed references: fringe and concho belts borrowed from one region were inexplicably combined with images of Plains Indian Chief heads in feather headdresses from another. Isaac Mizrahi looked to the Northwest Coast nations to inspire his Totem Pole Dress, circa 1991. And the sepia-toned image of an Indian in a headdress has continued to seduce the fashion market: model Karlie Kloss wore one during the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in New York, while Gwen Stefani played an Indian princess in the video for her 2012 single, “Looking Hot.” Such fashion role models and empires belittle the complexities of Native North American style, reducing them to mere novelty. Most recently, Nike unsuccessfully tried to take Indigenous art work to design their Puerto Rico Air Force 1 shoe. After huge pushback by the Guna Yala community, Nike was forced to postpone the release of the footwear.
Indigenous peoples have long been responding by bringing awareness to these misappropriations. In diverse areas from law and art to language, a recent trendy word to address cultural appropriation is to “decolonize.” Native fashion, though, is fairly new to the decolonial discussion table. But it strikes me: previous actions cannot be decolonized and will continue.
Native people have long been working to decolonize, to stop colonization from ever manifesting. Indigenous collectives formed in the late 1960s to bring about change, self-determination, and professional and social advancement. Key in these struggles have been the individuals of civil rights organizations like the American Indian Movement and the Indian Group of Seven, who demanded space be made for contemporary Aboriginal art in the 1970s, as well as the Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry (SCANA), established in 1985, and artists of Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, the largest Indigenous artist–run center in Canada, established in 1996. I give foremost respect to the latter organizations who have done honorable work toward the goal of decolonization and paved the way for succeeding Indigenous generations. But, decolonizing in the 21st century needs modernization in relation to fashion.
My preference is to Indigenize rather than decolonize. Flood the fashion world with Indigenous designers and models. Expose the imposters and highlight Native designers on the international fashion platform. I want to see Native models wearing Indigenous-made designs while gracing the covers of fashion magazines and strutting New York fashion week runways, squeezing out the appropriators.
Indigenizing fashion requires multifaceted tactics—including drawing it out of its narrow niches. More articles like this need to be written to give the Indigenous voice a public platform that reaches beyond Native media and into the mainstream discourse. And fashion shows must expand their purview in this way as well. The annual fashion shows I produce for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) seem large—attendance at the SWAIA show have grown from around 200 in 2014 to more than 1,000 people today—but they still cater to a limited demographic. By comparison, the Indigenous Fashion Toronto and Vancouver Indigenous Fashion weeks stretch nationwide. My Indigenizing fashion goal is to support and foster Indigenous expression free from rules and regulations that have been placed on Native North American artists since the formation of SWAIA. The fashion shows feature designers and artists who are not bound by conventions or expectations of what “Indian” art or dress should be.
Designers in this year’s show are integral to the Indigenizing process. Delina White of the label, I am Anishinaabe (whose designs are featured in the Walker’s June 13 Indigenous Spirit: Gender Fluid Fashion show) works with raw materials while integrating commercial materials as an expression of who she is as an Anishinaabe woman. Pamela Baker, a Canadian designer from North West Coast First Nations, creates politically forward designs to dramatically catch the viewer’s attention. Patricia Michaels‘s design aesthetic reflects her Native Taos Pueblo culture and the landscape of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was runner-up on Project Runway season 11 and is known for her hand-painted fabrics and dressed created with organic materials. These and other designers are Indigenizing fashion by creating looks inspired by their culture while extending beyond the expectations of “Indian” design. Native style is always changing and unique to each area, artist and designer, with each Indigenizing in their own means. A stride towards Indigenizing fashion.