Despite the emergence of Native Fashion, successful indigenous designers remain trapped in display cases
Niya DeGroat Henry
Growing up on the Navajo reservation, television was my only resource to the outside, American world. From Barney to soap operas to Oprah Winfrey, everything on the TV screen captured my imagination. Eventually, I started to notice something was missing: people who looked like me. Unless of course, I flipped the channel to a Western only to see John Wayne killing “savages” left and right. Except, those weren’t really Indians; they were white actors in red face and cheap wigs playing “Cowboys and Indians” in a forgotten, long ago era.
Today, if you walk into any tribally-owned casino, in the midst of all that beautiful, modern architecture, there is always a section dedicated to cultural artifacts from the past. Similarly, if you are traveling in the Southwest, and you stop by a jewelry shop or dine-in at a local restaurant, you will see a mish-mash of indigenous culture on full display like some curated collection.
In the world of fashion, elements of indigenous culture are reduced to the latest misappropriated trend called “tribal.” Attend any Coachella or Burning Man festival, and you will see this trend run amok via makeshift headdresses, leather fringes, and faux-feathered accessories – all of which tend to be mislabeled “Navajo.”
Fortunately, a group of emerging indigenous designers is changing the way indigenous culture is represented on the runways of fashion week. Still, a bulk of their work is reserved for the vacant display case in some newly commissioned project. In 2017, notable designers such as Project Runway alum Patricia Michaels (Taos), Bethany Yellowtail (Crow & Northern Cheyenne), Jared Yazzie (Diné), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) and Orlando Dugi (Diné), were part of a travelling exhibition called Native Fashion Now, which took up residence in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian – New York.
The exhibition featured contemporary works by indigenous designers “making their mark in today’s world of fashion.” As groundbreaking as the exhibit was, it still encapsulated Native Fashion as relics. In the YouTube docu-series alter-NATIVE, Bethany Yellowtail had this to say about the project, “I’m really excited to be a part of this exhibit because it’s a stepping stone to where Native people are going. My only, I guess, kind of qualms about it, is that we’re always in museums, we’re always in institutions, and we’re always on display…and I refuse for that to be my peak.”
This past summer, and fresh off his 2018 Designer of the Year win at Phoenix Fashion Week, Acoma designer Loren Aragon of the couture fashion brand ACONAV, was handpicked by the imagineers of Walt Disney World to design a Disney princess-inspired gown based off an Acoma olla pot pulled from the Smithsonian. The finished product was nothing short of breathtaking. Like an enchanted pumpkin straight out of Cinderella, Aragon transformed the traditional olla pot into a beautiful, contemporary gown fit for an indigenous princess.
“This project made me realize that there is support behind what I’ve been trying to push for, as far as representing Native Art, Native Fashion, and Native Culture by Native People. It gave me the confidence to speak to the ideas of us Natives being able to represent ourselves outside of our communities and outside of the usual Native-themed museums, galleries, casinos, et cetera,” said Aragon.
Still, Aragon had some reservations about the inadvertent limitations of museum-based projects, “I strongly agree that we can’t let this be our limiting factor. The more people see our work in the modern world, the more visible and existent we are to the world. As a Native designer, we have every right to be showcasing our works on world stages and in fashion weeks of New York, Paris, and London alongside the big names in fashion.”
To see Aragon’s one-of-a-kind dress up close, you can visit Epcot’s American Heritage Gallery at The American Adventure where it will be available to view for the next five years – enclosed yet again in a display case, of course.
Niyá DeGroat Henry is from the Diné Nation. He is a freelance content creator and graduate student studying fashion journalism at the Academy of Art University with a focus on Indigenous fashion.