For those of you connected to Indian country via cyberspace you’ll see that there has never been a more exciting time to be Native American than the present. What I see when I scroll down my newsfeed are a ton of brilliant beautiful Native folk making waves on and off the reservation. I see health and wellness programs, American Indian lawyers and entrepreneurs, hilarious videos full of Indian humor, Native athletes competing at the professional level, language programs and cultural preservation in education, I see hope and opportunity for our youth. Musicians, artists, models, photographers creating dynamic cutting edge images, actors and actresses in feature films and TV commercials, and my all-time favorite, Natives in fashion.
But how and when does the rest of the nation see us—those people who aren’t connected to the inter-tribal cyber webs of Indian country? They see us when the Kardashians and Gwen Stefani "play Indian" on TV and in music videos, when Paul Frank throws an “Electric Powwow,” when the GAP releases a “Manifest Destiny” tee, and when a war whooping Victoria’s Secret model is adorned in turquoise, chicken feathers, synthetic buckskin (and leopard bikini) and she sashays down the runway to the beat of her own drum.
They see us in the generalized image of the “Hollywood Indian,” war whooping, warbonnet-wearing, romanticized, sexualized, buckskin-beaded beings of the past. They see “us” in the stereotypes that the mainstream media continues to perpetuate.
I am a proud contemporary Native American woman from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Nations, born and raised on my reservation. To me the Hollywood Indian is not an accurate representation of who I am, it is not an homage to my ancestors, nor do I take it as a form of flattery.
On the flip side, I am currently living in Los Angeles, where I work full-time in the fashion industry as a designer. For the past few seasons we have seen adaptations of American Indian prints, jewelry, and apparel fill the shelves of many mainstream retailers. To me it’s exciting that fashion is inspired by our culture and the Native is "in." Although very distasteful at times and I roll my eyes in disgust at every single hipster I see frolicking around in a headdress (yes people in the city really wear those in public, especially in LA), I am optimistic about the opportunity that both the controversy and the cause can create:
#1 There is a window of opportunity for real Native American designers like myself to produce authentic wearable art that can cross over into the mainstream. How amazing would it be to see apparel distinctly inspired by the Crow or Cheyenne tribes on fresh, hip, apparel sold in local malls, or high end retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue? The designer would really be a Native American and the proceeds of sales would go where they belong, in the Native designers coffers on a remote reservations somewhere. Or what if your favorite celebrity was walking the red carpet in an American Indian fashion brand? Seeing that kind of success would give a greater sense of pride and honor to my community than any Victoria’s Secret model wearing a headdress. Impossible? I think not
#2 An opportunity to show we are still relevant and not people of the past. We can educate non-Natives and even other Native people who aren’t connected to their communities or don’t recognize the importance of preserving our culture.
With the social media boom, I am proud to see my people speaking out about the cultural misappropriation that seemed to have vomited all over the fashion and entertainment industry, especially in the last month.
Yes, there are many issues that are much more important to address concerning Indian Country such as education, health and wellness, alcoholism, diabetes, domestic violence, and so on. For example, as a personal struggle of my own I had a hard time finding a balance between my dreams to pursue a career in fashion and the many problems I see at home on my reservation that I wish I could fix.
However, I saw this really great quote someone posted while discussing the topic of cultural misappropriation. “By failing to challenge existing biases we allow children to adopt attitudes based on inaccuracies. Degrading representations of Natives in the dominant culture have negative effects on Native youth. Thus, stereotypes in the media have negative effects on the future of Native people, and of course as it’s always been, our children are targets of all forms of assimilation.”
The war bonnet being used out of context is just a small example of a larger problem. As war bonnets are held for the men in our communities who are leaders, chiefs, representatives and have been given rights to wear them, earned them, and each feather on his head signifies something specific. My brother Cordell Little Coyote is the youngest chief of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and to allow non-Natives to think that a war bonnet is a prop or accessory for everyone to wear invalidates it for those who still hold it sacred.
Whether or not you agree, disagree, don’t care, or are traditional, non-traditional, we are merely spinning our wheels debating one another. We can, however, come to a consensus as to what should be held sacred and not used as a fashion accessory.
I think these issues are worth putting up a fight about. As Native American people and professional fashion and art designers, we have an amazing window of opportunity to be seen and heard right now, especially since “Indian is IN” in the mainstream.
It’s up to us how we want to change the narrative. As fashion and art designers, can say “stop it” all we want, continue to voice our disgust, but when it comes down to it we (as a professional Native designers) must make progressive efforts to change the representation. Monkey see, monkey do. We can be inspired, be an expression of our culture, it is unique and beautiful, however in an accurate respectful light that still honors our nations.
Bethany Yellowtail is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and her family also belongs to the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation. She resides in Los Angeles, and works fulltime for the design team at Kellwood Company—Baby Phat division. She is also a freelance custom designer, patternmaker, and her own label “B.Yellowtail” was recently featured at Los Angeles Fashion Week. Her collection can be purchased athttp://shop.beyondbuckskin.com/ or connect with her via twitter and instagram @byellowtail.