Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Native American designers fight cultural caricatures

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 1:06 PM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
Two takes on Native American fashion from Victoria's Secret (left) and Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels (right).
Two takes on Native American fashion from Victoria's Secret (left) and Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels (right).
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • No Doubt, Victoria's Secret accused of "playing Indian" for profit
  • Native community wants larger role in representations of their culture in media
  • Non-Native entrepreneur faces skepticism in building platform for indigenous artists
  • Natives often asked to endorse imagery to build other brands, blogger says

Editor's note: This story was originally published in November 2012 following several high profile incidents of appropriation of Native American culture. We're resurfacing now after negative reaction emerged to Elle UK's recent cover photo, which features entertainer Pharrell Williams in a feathered headdress.

(CNN) -- This November, events nationwide celebrated the traditions, fashion and food of the nation's 566 recognized Indian tribes as part of Native American Heritage Month.

But a few high profile missteps surrounding the use of indigenous cultural imagery made bigger national headlines than any heritage month event.

First it was the release of No Doubt's Wild West-themed music video "Looking Hot," featuring teepees, fire dances and singer Gwen Stefani on horseback, a feather crowning her long blond braids. Then, supermodel Karlie Kloss walked the runway in a floor-length feather headdress, skimpy leopard-spotted bikini and turquoise jewelry at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.

Both instances sparked allegations of "playing Indian" for profit, leading No Doubt and Victoria's Secret to publicly apologize. The gaffes also reignited debate over where to draw the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation and the extent to which non-Natives should represent Natives in mainstream media and pop culture.

RELATED: Native American fashion goes "Beyond Buckskin" and headdresses

The conversation is important, because acts of cultural appropriation are not simply isolated incidents of "hipsters in Navajo panties and pop stars in headdresses," said Sasha Houston Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska. They are byproducts of "systemic racism" that perpetuate the idea that there's no such thing as contemporary Native culture.

"Despite what dominant society and mainstream media say, Native culture is a vibrant and living culture. We are not a relic of the past, a theme or a trend, we are not a style or costume, we are not mascots, noble savages or romantic fictional entities," Brown said in an editorial for the blog Racialious, "Nothing Says Native American Heritage Month Like White Girls in Headdresses."

It's a discussion that is especially vital as the holiday season of mass consumerism kicks off, she said. The goal is not to ban from the marketplace beaded jewelry or clothing incorporating tribal motifs, Brown said, but to involve Natives in their creation, marketing and profits.

"Collaborations can work as long as the dynamics at hand are empowering Native artists and designers so they are actually able to participate in an equitable manner," said Brown, who advises American Indian students at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

As the American-Indian and Alaska Native community, which numbers 5.1 million and makes up about 1.6% of the population of the United States, works toward getting a stronger voice in mainstream media, it needs allies, including non-Natives, she said.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

"What an ally does is support and help communicate the message of Native artists and entrepreneurs instead of speaking for them," Brown said. "There's a huge market for Native and non-Native partnerships, but there's also an inherent distrust of non-Natives coming into communities because of the examples that have been set in history. It just takes time."

A good ally is hard to find

The ingredients of a mutually beneficial collaboration can be hard to nail down. Budding entrepreneur Mac Bishop knows how hard it is to toe that line as a non-Native. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, the 23-year-old doesn't have any Native American ancestry. But, as a descendant of the Pendleton Wool family, which owns one of the country's longest-running wool mills, famous for its Native-inspired blankets, he grew up with a strong interest in the culture and close ties to the community.

Opinion: Just say no to "playing Indian"

He was a sophomore at Cornell University in 2009 when he decided to launch a "social business" that celebrated Native American culture through apparel and art. It was around the time Native-inspired clothing was showing up on runways and in the pages of fashion magazines. But Bishop insists he wasn't trying to ride a trend. He wanted NATIVE(X) to showcase products that told a story.

He began with a pair of wool shorts made from Pendleton's "Chief Joseph" patterned fabric, named for the Nez Perce leader who resisted orders from the U.S. government to move his band onto a reservation. A few fashion blogs picked up on the "Chief Joe" shorts and Bishop ran Facebook ads targeted at users of Native American-related fan pages.

Not everyone was happy about it. When Caleb Dunlap, an Ojibwe from Northern Minnesota's Lake Superior Band, realized Bishop was not Native, Dunlap began posting comments on Bishop's Facebook page accusing him of exploiting indigenous culture for financial gain.

"For me, it was like, 'Who is this guy who had the money to go to Cornell and start his own company? Why is he taking this Pendleton-looking stuff and making it into shorts? Be smarter, do your own thing,' " he said. "I wanted to convey to him that a Native person should be doing this."

A spirited exchange followed the wall posts, with Dunlap questioning Bishop's motives and Bishop insisting he was exploring a sincere interest in Native culture with altruistic goals in mind. After that, the two didn't speak for nearly two years until Bishop contacted him after launching his website with a new perspective.

"I was naive in thinking I could build cultural awareness without that culture's involvement," Bishop said. "That conversation helped expose me to how controversial this could be and opened my eyes to the Native perspective on what's going on in the fashion industry."

Why it matters to Natives

Collaborations between natives and non-Natives can work, like when Nike teamed up with Pawnee artist Bunky Echo-Hawk on its N7 line. The collection, which was developed by a Nike employee of American Indian heritage, creates sportswear with a Native aesthetic to fund athletic programs in Indian country.

Echo-Hawk said he had concerns about working for a large corporation. But after learning of its philanthropic goals, it was a no-brainer.

"The whole line is really steeped in the Native philosophy and tradition of giving back to the community so it was an opportunity I was really proud to be a part of," said Echo-Hawk, who is still a design consultant for N7.

"The fact they felt like they needed to work with a Native artist won a lot of respect from me because most corporations don't do that. They grab some clip art or culturally protected images that are sacred to us and put them on panties."

He knows that outsiders still may not see what the big deal is. Who wouldn't want a personal visit from a Victoria's Secret model in a headdress? It matters because what some see as a beautiful geometric print is sacred imagery with a deeper cultural and religious significance, he said, like the Christian cross or star of David.

Plus, the community is still reeling from the effects of colonialism, he said.

"This country is really young and what may seem to a lot of people like ancient history is really recent history to us. We're just a few generations removed from our freedom," he said.

"It's all we have left and it's like we're being picked apart by vultures. It's something we feel like we have to protect and celebrate. It's our identity."

Thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever to find hoodies and T-shirts with sleek variations on Northwest Coastal designs, hand-sewn moccasins or silver and turquoise jewelry -- all by real Native artists.

Turtle Mountain Chippewa Jessica R. Metcalfe started the blog Beyond Buckskin to promote Native artists and designers. This summer, she expanded the platform to an e-commerce site featuring products made by Native Americans where you'll find "hipsters in headdresses" bowties, but no headdresses, said Metcalfe, who has a Ph.D. in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona.

In contrast, most Americans probably get their Native-inspired looks from the likes of Proezna Schouler, Forever 21 or, until recently, Urban Outfitters. Last October, Brown wrote an open letter asking the company's CEO to pull its "Navajo" collection, which included the infamous "Navajo hipster panty" and flask. A Change.org petition followed, along with a cease-and-desist order from the Navajo Nation, ultimately leading to the removal of all "Navajo" references in product descriptions, though a trademark lawsuit is still winding through the courts.

Each step forward seems to be followed by another gaffe. In September, apparel maker Paul Frank Industries drew ire for throwing a "neon-Native American powwow" on Fashion's Night Out called "Dream Catching with Paul Frank." Images of the brand's iconic monkey in war paint and headdress plastered the walls as similarly dressed employees photographed guests with tomahawks and bow-and-arrow sets, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Guests had a choice of drinks with names like "Rain Dance Refresher," "Dream Catcher" and "Neon Teepee."

"We have sophisticated tribal governments and communities, but how will we be able to be seen as modern, successful people if we are continually represented through plastic tomahawks and feathers?" Native Appropriations blogger Adrienne Keene said in an open letter to Paul Frank Industries and the agency that threw the party.

The company removed photos of the party from its Facebook page and issued an apology. A few days later, the president of Paul Frank Industries contacted Keene to discuss ways of rectifying the situation, from design collaborations to a panel on the use of Native Imagery, in what the blogger deemed a rare gesture of collaboration.

Building mutually beneficial relationships

After some initial hiccups, NATIVE(X) founder Mac Bishop believes he has a solid foundation for a collaborative effort, but acknowledges there is still lots of work to be done. In its current form, NATIVE(X) is a platform for Native artists to sell their work and share their stories by collaborating with NATIVE(X)on its line of bags, wallets and iPad cases, he said.

Nathaniel Wilkerson is the first artist to work with NATIVE(X). He created the design for its product label and allows Bishop to sell his prints and art cards on the NATIVE(X) website. It's a collaboration that he considers mutually beneficial because it exposes his work to a wider audience. Working with a non-Native was never an issue, said Wilkerson. Most of the galleries that show his work are not owned by Natives, and a lot of them have closed since the economic downturn, making the extra exposure all the more valuable, he said.

Some feel NATIVE(X) has yet to prove itself. Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin says it's too early to fairly evaluate the company's success, especially in light of its Pendleton connection.

"Pendleton has built their small empire off of being inspired by and learning about (and replicating) Native American aesthetic traditions," she said. "I think it's time that we stop looking at non-Native versions of Native American cultures as the thing to celebrate and the thing to uphold as the best example of 'Native American fashion.' "

Bishop acknowledged the sensitivities associated with being a white person going into business with Native artists, but he is hopeful that "good intentions should be able to overcome that."

In the meantime, NATIVE(X) has made strides toward its goal of social consciousness by sponsoring a wearable art workshop on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which drew praise and attention from various people. Handbag designer Maya Stewart learned about NATIVE(X) from Metcalfe's Twitter feed and saw potential through the platform to reach a wider audience. She contacted him to discuss potential ventures, which are still in the works.

"I think it's important that we as designers educate people through our art and whoever creates that platform, whether it's a Native or non-Native, it's the same thing as long as we're getting the word out."

After their somewhat acrimonious beginning, Dunlap says he now considers Bishop an "ally-in-training."

"We need allies who may not be from our community, but know our community because someone educated him. That's what's going to help change how others see us."

Follow CNN Living on Facebook and Emanuella Grinberg on Twitter

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
"American Journey" tells the stories of pioneering people who are rebuilding America -- its economy, its infrastructure and its youthful spirit.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Mon August 26, 2013
Do you care who made your shirt? Some brands and retailers hope consumers will pay a premium for the stories behind the labels.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon August 19, 2013
The parents of a teen with mental disorders are trying to turn his passion for drawing into a career so he can support himself.
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon October 7, 2013
Interior-design platform Houzz turns beautiful images of people's passions -- food, fashions, architecture -- into popular mobile apps.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Mon August 12, 2013
Heather von Quilich's sewing hobby has become a family business thanks to Etsy and a few industrial sewing machines.
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Mon September 2, 2013
L.T. Wright and Dan Coppins were craftsmen by trade who decided to turn a hobby making custom knives into a sharp business idea.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
Filmmaker Josh Miller tries to live off American-made products for 30 days and learns that a little bit of effort can go a long way.
A smaller-scale dairy farm in Vermont is trying to persuade people to think outside the pen when it comes to veal.
updated 6:43 AM EDT, Mon April 1, 2013
A generation of emerging Native American designers show there's more to Native fashion than turquoise, headdresses and buckskin.
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
The demise of American manufacturing and the trend toward outsourcing overseas has made it hard to find American-made goods, but not impossible.
We're looking to tell the stories of Americans who found clever ways to turn the hobbies they love into jobs for themselves and their communities.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT