QUICK STORY: I remember when breakdancing and hip-hop came to our small, rural reservation town. We discovered one movie—Beat Street (and later Breakin’)—and we loved the energy so much and decided that we were breakdancers! A bunch of little dusty Indian kids, we went to a small city for school shopping once a year, but now we were participating in a decidedly urban, decidedly black art form with zero cultural context.
We didn’t understand what it meant to the creators of the artform; we’d never been to NYC. We just knew that we loved it—hip-hop. It made sense to us. For some reason. Now, there’s a whole generation of Native hip-hoppers: Tall Paul, Chase Manhattan, Mic Jordan, Frank Waln, Nataanii Means, Sacramento Knoxx. All of these Native artists practice a black art form in a way that makes sense to Natives and speaks to the Native experience. I doubt those Native hip-hop artists asked black people (who would you ask anyway?) to participate in hip-hop culture—we surely didn’t—they just did it. And it worked.
Perfect. Influence. Inspiration. The way life is—we find a thing that speaks to us and love that thing and become familiar to that thing and sometimes even re-create that thing. Because that thing is beautiful and helps people, heals people.
Everyone is inspired by someone.
WHY AM I TELLING YOU THIS? I understand when non-Natives are attracted to Native culture and become “wannabes” or seek to “find themselves” by immersing themselves in (pseudo) Native culture. In the same way that Native people found meaning in hip-hop or cowboy culture and dress like hip-hoppers or cowboys, some non-Native people evidently find a lot of meaning pulling a “Dances With Wolves” Thompson and dressing up and going to a pow-wow. I’ve met a lot of folks like this—of course, there’s the obligatory eye rolls and suspicions. There are so-called Native teachers and academics and even journalists who really aren’t Native—and everybody knows it and looks the other way a little bit.
Because at the end of the day? Yeah sure, there’s something a bit weird about it—pretending they’re something they’re not and claiming they come from a place they’ve barely even seen. But really…they’re trying to find something that makes sense to them. I can’t blame them. My cultures and communities are aesthetically gorgeous, with some of the strongest people in the history of this planet that allowed them to survive unfathomable traumas and trials that would have obliterated a less resilient people.
Why wouldn’t someone want to be like them? It makes sense. Just like Natives with hip-hop, everyone wants to emulate something powerful and beautiful.
Which brings me to the point of this article—Bethany Yellowtail. Beth is a badass Northern Cheyenne and Crow woman, creator and clothing designer. The maternal spirit she has is powerful—she has that wonderful motherly spirit of creation—she makes some of the most amazing clothes I have ever seen. Period. Not “Native clothing”—but instead ridiculously beautiful clothing that is some of the hottest that I’ve ever seen that happens to be made by a Native women.
She’s amazing. A creator. Someone who, within our communities, provides an incredible value as a person who clothes our communities. Historically the seamstresses were amongst the MOST IMPORTANT people of our communities because, what good would the warriors be without clothes that kept them warm? They couldn’t fight! What good are the hunters if their feet get cold? They couldn’t hunt!
B.Yellowail fashion photographed by Thosh Collins.
In short, the women had a LOT of authority.
So recently when the brand KTZ made some clothes that closely emulated Bethany’s designs, my thought was, “I get it.” Her work is gorgeous and powerful! Why wouldn’t someone be attracted to her work? It’s just like hip-hop—of course everyone of all ethnicities is going to want it. Granted, it would be cool if KTZ reached out to Bethany and said, “Hey, I really dig your style. Maybe we can work together?”
Still, designers find something meaningful and necessary in Bethany's (and other Native designers') designs. That means there’s a place for them to work together.
I was fortunate to talk to Bethany about these things, about how she sees her role as creator, designer and community member. Please enjoy the interview and support this sister by purchasing some of her beautiful fashion from the website below.
Thing About Skins: Hi Beth. Please tell the readers a bit about yourself and where you come from.
Bethany Yellowtail: Hello! Well for starters I’m a fashion designer, business owner and the founder of B.Yellowtail. I currently live in Los Angeles, CA but I’m proud to call the Apsáalooke and Northern Cheyenne nations my home.
What are some of the newest things you have going on? I heard you had some big shoots recently, some shows and some new clothes coming out. Brag for a second, sis—tell everyone what’s going on with you.
I’m an awful bragger, but I’m really, really excited about all the new happenings in my life and all the incredible folks who've helped make it happen.
My newest collection titled “Mighty Few” drops today at byellowtail.com.
I named it that because many of the elements come straight out of the “Mighty Few.” That’s the name for my home district on the Crow Nation, haha. That’s the literal interpretation anyways, but there are many elements and layers to my collection that were inspired by some really incredible mighty women in my life. One part in particular is a collaboration dress and skirt with Jamie Okuma -- yes, world-renowned beadworker/artist/fashionista Jamie Okuma. She graciously gifted me a floral beadwork design that I turned into a textile. I also named many of the pieces after Native women who’ve inspired my work. It was really important for me to do that. Many times when non-native people/designers/industries etc. think of “Native Americans” they see us as relics of the past and there is a strong disconnect between the imagery of our ancestors and the people we are today. So for me this collection is my way of expressing the continuity of the people I come from, sharing an authentic indigenous perspective, and honoring the strength, beauty, and resilience of our women, in the best way I know how.
I also joined forces with some of Native America’s creative heavy hitters for my fashion campaign. Photographer Anthony “Thosh” Collins and I have been dreaming of shooting this collection for years and we finally made it happen. We brought in Jade Willoughby, Ojibwe, who’s been featured in Vogue India and recently named by Elle & Marie Claire Magazine as one of the “Top women who are redefining beauty.” She’s simply incredible, a beautiful spirit and is most definitely a shining star to keep an eye on. We also brought in Martin Sensmeier, a Tlingit actor/model/youth advocate, to complete the fashion campaign. They're the perfect team & incredible individuals.
B.Yellowail fashion photographed by Thosh Collins.
I’m a big fan of your work and am thankful that there are Natives showing off our beautiful patterns and styles—I think that’s important work from a self-esteem perspective. Do you think it’s important that Natives see our work as valuable and beautiful in mainstream settings?
Absolutely. Mostly because as native creators, so much of our identity and culture is tied into our work that it’s necessary to see it as valuable and beautiful. It’s not just art or fashion for the sake of creating, it's a reflection of ourselves and our community.
Growing up, I always knew deep inside I would be a fashion designer. I didn’t know how and I didn't know when, and most of the time it seemed like a pipe dream, but I always knew. I remember reading fashion magazines and watching celebrities walk the red carpet in beautiful clothes. I dreamt about seeing my designs there one day. But truth be told, when you're a Native kid from way out in the sticks and you’ve never seen a single Native person on any mainstream fashion platform, how can you even relate? It seemed so far fetched back then. But now the possibilities are endless.
Putting the fashion component aside, I think it’s important that Native people see ourselves as valuable, period. A lot of times I didn’t see the value in my own voice or perspective because I had no one expressing what I could relate to. Things have definitely changed, we’re in an incredible time, our people are breaking down boundaries and stepping into major platforms on the daily. It’s creating a ripple effect and a brand new wave of Native people will be able to relate and see the value in themselves. It’s an incredible thing to witness. I’m grateful I can be a small part.
The greatest gift I’ve received so far in knowing all that is seeing Native women proudly and confidently wearing my work. This one young woman in particular bought one of my dresses specifically so that she could wear it for her college Knowledge Bowl; she won best dressed of course. I can’t even explain the feeling I get when I receive those messages telling me how good they felt or how many compliments they got. My inner rez girl beams with pride every time. Knowing they walk a little taller and feel a little prouder is such a gift.
Do you think you have obligations to your community or Native people in your capacity as a designer? If so, what do you think those obligations are?
I don't think I have any obligations to my community. However I do have an inherit responsibility to my community. At this point in my life, I understand that and have accepted it. But I recognize in order to fulfill that responsibility, I may have to spend more time away from my community than I would like. It’s a lonely road sometimes. I’ve had to sacrifice being physically gone from my community and family in order to get the work done and gain the experience and knowledge I need to be on a mainstream platform. Once I’ve reached that place I’ll be able to use my platform for a much bigger purpose. It’s a part of that responsibility.
You seem to use a lot of traditional elements in a contemporary context in your clothing and show those traditional elements to a large audience, both Native and non-Native. When Nike or Mercedes Benz or Christian Louboutin offers a design to the mainstream, those designs are going to be influential and there will inevitably be imitators and people influenced by their designs because Nike is really good. Your work is likewise very really good and beautiful—do you think it’s normal to be influenced and try to emulate things that are beautiful and good?
No doubt about that. I remember when I was in high school I watched Beyonce’s music video for "Check On It" from the Pink Panther movie. I decided right then and there that I must make myself a PINK suit like Beyonce. Because lets face it, she’s the queen. So I did and I rocked it at Wyoming Girls State, a week long program for youth to learn about the state government.
In retrospect, yes, its absolutely normal for people to try and emulate things that are beautiful and good. Cue: Beyonce. However there is a delicate balance when you combine culturally valuable elements. I recognize that is what will always set my work apart from other fashion brands. It may also be a scary line to tread sometimes because it can be so easily emulated.
I also know certain elements are not allowed to be shared and I am grateful that if I do not know, I have the resources and people to ask in the proper way. That’s the difference between Native people sharing our stories and non-Native people who try to emulate. It just simply can’t be done with the same spirit and integrity.
You and I talked immediately after the KTZ incident. I intentionally chose to wait for this interview until after that died down because what you’re doing day-to-day is so important and I didn’t want to give the impression that your claim to fame is someone taking from you. At the end of your career, how do YOU want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered for sharing my truth and being fearless in doing so. Getting down to the basics of what I am trying to accomplish, I just want to do what’s inherent to me and do what my ancestors have always done: create beautiful, stunning, meaningful and purposeful wares. By utilizing authentic designs, traditional elements and combining them with my love for fashion, I simply want to create and express myself without anyone else defining who I am. I know who I am better than anyone else and what’s in mainstream fashion, specifically the “Native” inspired fashion, doesn’t reflect me or the people I come from. I want to be remembered for not being afraid to do that -- and of course creating dope fashion!
B.Yellowail fashion photographed by Thosh Collins.
In your opinion, should non-Native designers have Native elements in their clothing? What do you think about Natives borrowing creative ideas and artforms from other cultures?
Honestly, I don’t fret too much over non-Native designers creating Native inspired fashion. The majority of it is not tribally specific anyways. What’s in mainstream fashion now doesn’t even reflect the tribal identities of our people and it really doesn’t belong to us. Especially walking into local malls, forever21, Walmart, Pendleton or wherever “ethnic” designs are sold; none of those designs are even ours to begin with. They were made by non-Native people! Rarely do you ever even see designs that are tribally specific unless they’re made by Native artists.
However I do think more Native designers and artists should reclaim their tribally-specific designs and move them forward in the same spirit and intent of our ancestors. They're a part of our storytelling. The more this happens, the more authentic works will be sought after. I genuinely believe people crave authenticity and it just so happens we’ve got a plethora of it in our communities.
I also think there should be a respect when brands do want to incorporate tribally specific designs, or when they pitch collections as “honoring the Native Americans” -- then they should include actual Native people. I also think it’s ok to be inspired by other cultures, but it’s important to be conscious and be respectful in the same way we hope for.
Any last words—how could our readers support your movement and business?
First of all thank you for allowing me this space to share my truth. I’m grateful to have your support. Today is the official launch of my Spring/Summer collection.
You can pre-order now through April 30th.
Head on over to byellowtail.com and buy something beautiful for yourself or someone else. If it’s not in your budget at this moment then help spread the vision. The goal is to be in stores and retailers across the country by this fall. If you know someone who knows someone who loves fashion, share the good word. More business means more collaborations with indigenous artists, more authentic works and more opportunity to tell our own stories through fashion and art.
B.Yellowail fashion photographed by Thosh Collins.
Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
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