There is a lot of heated debate in the fashion world about cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to art and fashion traditionally made by indigenous communities. What are non-indigenous white people allowed to buy and wear? Is it appreciation and support, or appropriation and exploitation?
Well, the first thing to know is that it is racist to wear a Native American or Indian costume. And along those lines, it’s never okay to ever wear a Native American feathered headdress. Unlike Indian sarees (you were invited to an Indian wedding), or an embroidered huipil (you bought it from an indigenous artisan in Mexico), there’s simply no explanation for how you could have ethically and consciously come to be wearing a felt bonnet with turkey feathers.
For a 2015 article on Halloween costumes, I spoke to Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa who wrote her doctoral thesis on high fashion made by Native American designers, and she explained to me that each feather in a headdress was earned by a member of a First Nation tribe through a notable achievement. In the past, it might be winning a battle. But now a tribe member could garner one eagle feather for, say, doing your dissertation on a topic that dismantles stereotypes about Native American people. The person that earned that feather can then cast their vote for a chief by giving him their feather. Those feathers are then assembled into the glorious headdress you’ve seen in photos. It’s like not just one Purple Heart but a hundred of them.
So no, you can’t buy an authentic headdress. You definitely weren’t gifted it. If it is authentic, it was stolen. I was told by Ojibew journalist Mary A. Pember that traditional regalia stolen from pow-wows often winds up in Germany, which has a strange fascination with Native American culture.
The second line not to cross is buying or making knock-off Native American fashion. Real squash blossom necklaces made by Native American artists of silver and turquoise cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But as cheap fakes have flooded the market, these artists are being forced out of business, and out of one of the few remaining ways of earning good money on the reservation. This goes way beyond the disrespect of cultural appropriation; it’s been called economic colonization.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t patronize the shops and collections of Native American designers. They are familiar with their culture and have a feel for what kind of designs and objects they can create and sell to people who are not tribe members, so you can trust that if it’s for sale by a First Nation designer, it’s okay for you to buy it.
Native American designers want to be seen and respected. One way you can do that is by shopping their creations. Here are some to start with:
B.YELLOWTAIL is a Native American owned fashion and accessories brand that specializes in storytelling through wearable art. The clothing is designed by Northern Cheyenne/Crow fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail, while the accessories are 100% handmade by a collective of Native American artisans who hail from Tribal Nations throughout North America.
Ginew (Gih-noo) is the only Native American-owned denim line, owned and operated by husband and wife, Erik and Amanda. Created with pre-industrial methods, heirloom leather-working tools, patterns handed down from generation to generation since the 1880s, and meticulously sourced materials — Horween® or Herman Oak® leathers, forged brass buckles, selvage denim, wax canvas, and Pendleton® wool blanket fabric — they incorporate elements of their Ojibwe, Oneida, and Mohican heritage to express a contemporary Native American voice through premium apparel and accessories.
Jamie Okuma is Luiseno, Shoshone-Bannock, Wailaki, and Okinawan who is also an enrolled member of the La Jolla band of Indians in Southern California where she lives and works. A multi-award winning designer, she specializes in one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces, have been shown in Germany, Australia, France, plus the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Okuma has work in the permanent collections of The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Denver Art Museum, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. But she also designs ready-to-wear pieces, which you can see and shop above!
Beadwork artist Hollis Chitto is Mississippi Choctaw and Laguna and Isleta Pueblos. He has been plying his beading art since he was a young child. He loves large-scale projects, but recently has started doing smaller items at a more accessible price point for consumers.
Orenda Tribe founder Amy Yeung is fueled by her desire to honor her indigenous history, to protect sacred lands, and help others. Orenda Tribe is made up of a community of hands working together to craft each unique piece. A small team of artists and makers in Southern California and indigenous artists who live on the Navajo reservation, they are lovers of old things and inspired by the energy of vintage textiles. With each Orenda Tribe garment they creatively approach the upcycling process to repurpose for the future. Yeung is the daughter of a full-blooded Navajo, and her family comes from the Bisti Wilderness-Chaco Canyon region.
This New York-based clothing and accessory brand is founded by Korina Emmerich, whose colorful, made-to-order work references her Indigenous Pacific Northwest heritage from The Coast Salish Territory, Puyallup tribe. She uses materials like wool, cotton, and bamboo.
Evan Ducharme is a Metis artist with ancestral ties to the Cree, Ojibwe, and Saulteaux peoples. His work explores Metis identity and it’s cultural iconography, with particular focus on creating images of contemporary Indigeneity, reclamation of Indigenous sexualities, and a commitment to environmentally conscious practices.
Louise Solomon is an Ojibwe artist and “urban Indian” from downtown Toronto. Although she was born and raised in downtown Toronto she has always had a strong connection to her Ojibwe roots and Reserve which is Cape Croker First Nations. As a goldsmith, Louise creates wearable forms of art with precious materials, such as sterling silver, gold, precious gems, and diamonds. Many of her artistic expressions stem from her love of Mother Earth and the quick pace of downtown Toronto living.
Keri Ataumbi combines her Kiowa culture’s natural materials like quills or feathers with innovative techniques like computer-aided design and 3-D printing to create luxurious, unique jewelry. She was raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming but lives and creates her jewelry outside of Santa Fe.
ACONAV is a respectful representation of the Acoma Pueblo whose traditions and world-renowned pottery art culture are reflected in unique luxury designs. Find couture as well as ready-to-wear cocktail dresses, and accessories.
Based out of North Dakota, Beyond Buckskin is dedicated to advancing creative small businesses located throughout rural and urban communities by providing an online store where customers can connect with Native American fashion designers and jewelry artists. The platform works with dozens of individual artists and small businesses who all advance traditional Indigenous artistic practices by bringing ancient designs, natural materials, and cultural stories to modern fashion.
Alano is a Native American Tahltan multimedia artist and entrepreneur based in West Vancouver, British Columbia, and owner of the Edzerza Gallery. He screenprints his art onto sustainable, made-to-order fashion and yoga mats for men and women. (Please allow two weeks for ordering.)