Who You're Insulting When You Buy "Native American"-Inspired Things

When fashion people talk about “Navajo,” it’s an unfortunate thing that they’re probably not talking about Navajo people. They're likely trying to say “Southwest prints” or “blanket prints" and referring to items by Ralph Lauren or Isabel Marant instead of actual Diné (Navajo) designers like Jared Yazzie of OXDX or Margaret Wood. Across mass retailers and luxury design houses, “Native” fashion is a bona fide trend, from suede fringe to seed-bead embroidery. But for the most part, these products are entirely separated from Native American producers, artists, and communities. Even vendor platforms like Etsy, which is theoretically a bastion for underrepresented, minority sellers, run into this imposter issue. Writes Jessica Metcalfe, the founder of Beyond Buckskin, a site that empowers Native American artists and designers, “Search ‘Native American,’ [and] good luck finding items that are actually Native American... Instead, you will find items made by non-Natives, but inspired by Native culture.”
Photo: Courtesy of Etsy.
Karen Kramer writes in Native Fashion Now, “[Non-Native designers] appropriate Indian style for their own purposes…often [using] it to assert a kind of 'true' Americanness, or to stand for reductionist concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘authenticity.’ Their garments may be handsomely executed; they may raise the profile or prestige of Native aesthetics. But when symbols of Native culture are deployed by people who don’t understand their meaning, it’s like a game of 'telephone,' where the message comes garbled. After all, the 'America' these designs now represent is the same one that has oppressed its indigenous people for so long.”

The problem with that is manifold. Says Adrienne J. Keene, EdD, of Native Appropriations, “Most often people who engage in cultural appropriation use the 'respect' and 'honor' argument to justify their actions — ‘But I think Native culture is so beautiful!’ or ‘I’m honoring Native Americans!’ To me, there is no respect in taking designs or cultural markers from a community, divorcing them from their meaning and context, and selling them for monetary gain. The way to truly respect Native communities in the fashion world is to support and buy directly from Native designers — these designers know the boundaries of their own cultures, know what elements are appropriate to incorporate in their work and sell to non-Natives, are building upon generations of culture and design, and very importantly, the sales are benefiting members of the community the designs come from, not a large corporation or non-Native designer.”

It’s also illegal. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act states that “it is unlawful to offer or display for sale or sell any good…in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe…within the United States.” Violation of this can result in fines up to $250,000 or a five-year prison sentence for individuals, or up to $1 million for businesses (Urban Outfitters was recently sued by the Navajo nation). But, that hasn’t quelled the tides: Today, Native designers are grossly underrepresented in a space that is filled approximations of their culture. But, many individuals are attempting to change that.

Says Dr. Keene, “The Native fashion world is small, and the designers I know are quick to support one another, collaborate, offer resources, and promote one another, rather than viewing each other as competition. This environment allows for an amazing community to develop that is able to do far more than single designers can on their own.”
Photo: Courtesy of Beyond Buckskin.
Yazzie, whose label OXDX subverts bastardized symbols of Native culture — like taking the Cleveland Indian mascot, Chief Wahoo, and meshing the image with a Misfits skull — found a tradition of personalizing and deconstructing clothing in a way that’s entirely untold in American history books, but is something familiar to many modern Native people: “There’s government-issued tribal clothing that our parents used to get as Navajo kids on the first day of school. My mom would fashion it into different stuff — it was super unique. We weren't the richest people, but she would make it a little different so everybody would think she bought all her clothes,” Yazzie told us. “I guess I got a little part of that.”
Photo: Courtesy of Not Above.
Heritage and tradition is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back, especially for Diné jewelry designer Nanibaa Beck: “So many people want to talk about Navajo jewelry as traditional, but when we think about the word 'traditional,' it’s a vibrant word; it’s continuous.” Beck’s designs combine Navajo silversmith know-how with an on-trend minimalist approach. Her nameplate necklaces feature words in Diné Bizaad (the Navajo language), including yeigo (to do something diligently), nizhóní (beautiful, good), and hózhó (balance and harmony) — which all tell a story much richer than the dreamcatcher trinkets you find at the mall. "I love sharing Diné bizaad with people, because it provides insight to our culture’s worldview."

Says Navajo blogger and museum professional Jaclyn M. Roessel, “There is a constant need in American society to homogenize culture. The reality is there are so many rich perspectives and views of what is traditional even within one community that is extremely diverse. Appropriated fashion does not recognize the value of diversity and how by embracing blanket terms of ‘Navajo’ or ‘Aztec,' they are erasing communities of people who are still part of modern society.”

But for these Native designers to beat out the Urban Outfitters, Forever 21s, and hobby craftsmen who view American Indians as an aesthetic “trend” rather than an actual group of people, a few things need to happen. “In order for Native designers to become the dominant face of Native fashion, it is going to take access to resources and mainstream venues, but also a re-training of the consumers,” says Dr. Keene. "The public needs to shift their thinking and realize that knowing the story behind a piece — the community it comes from, the meaning behind it — is far cooler than buying a cheap knockoff that will disintegrate after a few washes. Respect is letting Native peoples represent themselves in fashion, rather than having outsiders represent us.”

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