Native Fashion – Cross Cultural Boundary Shattering

The Messenger (The Owl), Margaret Roach Wheeler (Chicksaw) cape and headpiece, silk-wool year, metal, silver, glass beads and peacock feathers.

February and March bring us reports of fashion shows from New York, Paris, Milan, London… all of which have bragging rights, but they may meet their match in some of the garments and accessories on display at the Museum of the American Indian, in the fabulous new show, Native Fashion Now .  Divided into four parts (Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, Provacateurs) the exhibit features over 60 pieces of contemporary clothing, jewelry and footwear designed by Native Americans. While many reference traditional sources and design, they are adapted to today’s materials and sensibilities. The pieces are all about the creation that happens when cultures collide, bringing forth something new but that still has heritage at its foundation.  The craftsmanship is exquisite.  As an embroiderer, I was immediately drawn to the beaded pieces, of which there are many splendid ones.

The first gallery – Pathbreakers  features the work several trailblazers, such as Frankie Welch (Cherokee), who dressed First Lady Betty Ford, and Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), who you may recognize from the 2013 season of Project Runway.  You’ll also find dresses by Cherokee designer Lloyd “Kiva” New, whose custom clothing and accessories in the 1940‘s and ’50’s were part of mainstream (as opposed to “ethnic”) fashion, combining Native imagery with modern silhouettes and palettes. New housed his studio in an artisan-run boutique complex in Scottsdale Arizona, and sold his fashions in high-end boutiques and through Neiman Marcus.  He was the first Native designer to show in international fashion exhibition in the 1950’s.  This dress is his variation on Dior’s “New Look.”

1950’s dress, Lloyd “Kiva” New, (Cherokee) screen-printed cotton


Maria Samora (Taos  Pueblo) created this stunning Lily Pad bracelet of 18 carat gold, palladium white gold and diamonds, in a design that is a total break with the turquoise and silver that defined “Native” design for so long.

Lily Pad bracelet, Maria Samora (Taos Pueblo) gold, palladium white gold, and diamonds


In the Revisitors section you’ll find hats, parasols, dresses by designers who incorporate and reinterpret Native symbols in their work, or use new materials while maintaining a traditional aesthetic.  Be sure to visit the room to the right of this section, where you’ll find lots of fabulous bead work like the belt by Niio Perkins below.

Belt from Emma Ensemble, Niio Perkins (Akwesasne Mohawk) cotton, velvet, glass beads, metal pins


Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) transformed a pair of Christian Louboutin boots, completely covering them in a design of swallows and flowers reminiscent of her childhood, using beads from the 1880’s which she hand stitched over the course of hundreds of hours.

Boots, designed by Christian Louboutin, France, beadwork Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock)


This Old Time Floral Elk Tooth Dress, by Bethany Yellowtail, (Apsaalooke (Crow)/ Northern Cheyenne) is a knock-out, combining elements of heritage – elk teeth are the epitome of Apsaalooke wealth, while the leather appliqués hearken back to Crow and Nez Perce floral motifs – with the thoroughly “fashion” underdress and lace overlay.

Old Time Floral Elk Tooth Dress, Bethany Yellowtail, (Apsaalooke (Crow)/Northern Cheyenne)


The Activators section features younger artists, many of whom use fashion to express their political views or to raise awareness of issues affecting Native communities.

One of my favorites is the tee-shirt by Dustin Martin (Diné [Navajo]) with it’s image of a Colt .45 revolver below which is the inscription:  “Ceci n’est pas un conciliateur”  a play on Renee Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – but the kicker is in the explanation on the bottom near the hem:

This is Not a Peacemaker, Dustin Martin, (Diné [Navajo])

THIS IS NOT A PEACEMAKER”  The “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” was adopted as the standard military service revolver from 1873-1892.  Nicknamed “The Peacemaker”, Samuel Colt’s revolutionary side arm was used by Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry during the Great Sioux War of 1876.  On June 25th, Custer and 267 of his men were killed when they engaged a combined force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors desperate to protect their families camped alongside the Little Bighorn River.  Let by the likes of Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, these sovereign original land owners understood that the implement on Custer’s hip meant anything but peace.  RESIST THE HYPE.

Provacateurs contains one-of-a kind items, that push tradition into the realm of experimental, and are sometimes used to provoke thinking on charged subjects such as colonialism and sexism, or the influence of technology.

Sho Sho Esquiro (Kasha Dene/Cree) has created an elegant evening gown of surprising materials:  rooster feathers, seal, beaver tail and carp, as well as silk and beads, displaying a very skillfully tailored garment.  Hailing from Canada’s Yukon region, Esquiro knows the importance of clothing that is well sewn and constructed.  This garment is from her “Day of the Dead” series, meant to be worn by her departed loved ones at an imagined reunion.  The clothing in this series also takes inspiration from the Mexican holiday of the same name.  I really like the animal skull and tulle fascinator by Dominique Hanke (British).

Wlle, Wile, Wile dress, Day of the Dead Collection, Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree) seal, beaver tail, carp, beads, sik, rayon, rooster feathers; skull and tulle fascinator by Dominique Hanke (British)


Brothers David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Diné [Navajo]/Picuris Pueblo) have created a new take on that glamour standard bearer, the feather boa, crafting an accessory for the 21st century (from stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint and feathers) that captures all the attitude of its more malleable predecessor.  Try wearing this on the subway – even jaded New Yorkers would look twice! The  Gunmetal Pleat dress by  Consuelo Pascual (Diné [Navajo]/Maya) fashioned from organza recalls the aesthetics of Paco Rabanne and Courrèges, but takes them to a new level.

Postmodern Boa, David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin; Gunmetal Pleat dress, Consuelo Pascual


There’s a lot more to see in Native Fashion Now  (more photos are on my Instagram feed) so get over to the Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green before it closes on September 4th.   The catalogue (written for the exhibit when it originated at the Essex Peabody Museum) that accompanies the show is fabulous!

The Museum is hosting two events in conjunction with the exhibit:

On Thursday, April 20th, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm, The Power of Native Design an evening of fashion and music, and you can hear the personal stories of designers Dorothy Grant (Haida), Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone Bannock), Bethany Yellowtail (Apsaalooke/Northern Cheyenne) and others.  Admission is free!

On Saturday, April 22nd, an all-day symposium, Native/American Fashion: Inspiration, Appropriation and Cultural Identity, will bring together Native and non-Native historians, fashion designers and artists working in the fields of fashion, law and indigenous studies, addressing  fashion as a creative endeavor and an expression of cultural identity, issues of problematic cultural appropriation, and offering examples of creative collaborations and best practices between Native designers and fashion brands. The symposium is co-sponsored with the Fashion Institute of Technology. Admission is free!

Big Plans for the Museum of the American Indian

(l-r) Lenape rattles, Hawaian gourd drum, Chilean mapuché drum, Andean armadillo charango (guitar)

Recently I attended a press conference and ceremony to kick off the addition of a new space at the National Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green.  If you’re not familiar with it, this museum – the George Gustave Haye Center – is one of three facilities (one on the Mall in Washington DC and the other in Suitland, Maryland) that comprise the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. (I’ve reviewed their exhibits on Navajo jewelry and ledger art)  The event featured short speeches by museum and elected officials, as well as an Iroquois blessing ceremony.   

The Center, which opened 100 years ago on 155th Street & Broadway by George Gustave Haye, is reconfiguring the space with the goal of showing a more complete history of Native peoples, so their contributions are not erased.  As one of the speakers noted, in its present location, the Center is opposite Ellis Island, symbolically creating a dialogue between the Native peoples and the people who came to the Americas after them.

The Center will be modernizing its youth learning center, the imagiNATIONS Activity Center (iAC) by repurposing 4,500 sq. ft. of office space into exhibition, educational and administrative space, so the Center can expand its educational offerings to students, educators and visitors, while allowing for school partnerships and cross-cultural collaborations.   

The iAC will demonstrate the influence and impact of Native innovations and technologies and the Native American approach to innovation, critical thinking, creative problem solving and sustainability – all of which are clearly relevant to 21st century STEAM-based (science, technology, engineering,art, math) education.

Snow Goggles of walrus ivory by Tom Akeya, St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik, Alaska

There will be exhibits on Native foods, medicines, engineering, architecture and mathematics, showcasing the skills of the early Native peoples in both North and South America in agriculture, health care, bridge building, iglu and pueblo design, as well as the Mayan invention of the concept of zero!

The construction is slated to be completed in late 2017 and open to the public in April 2018.   I can’t wait!  In addition to its permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum offers a range of public programs, including music and dance performances, films, and symposia.  You can find more information on the museum’s website.   BTW, admission is FREE!

UNBOUND: Narrative Art of the Plains

His Buffalo Medicine, 2012 Joel Pulliam

His Buffalo Medicine, 2012 Joel Pulliam

If the Museum of the American Indian isn’t on your radar screen, it should be.  Located in the magnificent former US Customs House at Bowling Green, it is a treasure.  The current exhibit, UNBOUND: Narrative Art of the Plains would be a good introduction.  It explores the different media, images and symbols the Native peoples of the Plains have used to tell their stories since the late 1700’s.  The curator, Emil Her Many Horses, has taken advantage of the large space to mount a comprehensive exhibit, which starts in the 18th century and continues through  the present day, showing how artists recorded ceremonies, rituals, and significant events in their communities, and how they addressed cultural upheavals during the Reservation Era (1870-1920) and the American Indian Movement of the 1970’s.  Some 50 new works by contemporary Native artists were commissioned for this exhibition.

A Warrior's Story Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird," by Lauren Good Day Giago

A Warrior’s Story Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird,” by Lauren Good Day Giago

In the first two large rooms, you’ll find works by modern day artists next to ones from the 18th and 19th centuries, linking and placing them in dialogue with each other. The side-by-side display of Winter Count calendars, tipi’s, shirts and robes allows you to see the changes in media, as artists moved from using animal hides to cloth and other materials.  One of the highlights for me was Lauren Good Day Giago’s “A Warrior’s Story Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird.”  It is paired with a  muslin Lakota dress from the 1880‘s; decorated dresses of this kind could only be worn by women whose relatives had been killed in battle. On the bottom of Ms. Giaog’s dress (also muslin) she has painted images related to her grandfather’s service in Vietnam.  One of the things that struck me in this exhibit  was that a number of the artists or their  family members served in Vietnam.

In the center of the room you’ll find an exhibit of art from Ft. Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida, where 72 Southern Plains warriors who fought in the Red River Wars  were imprisoned from 1875-78.  There’s a digitized version of two drawing books, which the prisoners used to document their experiences, especially that of being transported to Florida by means that were foreign to them:  wagon train, ship, rail…  and their regimented life at the Fort.  The original books (given to General William T. Sherman) are displayed under glass, being too fragile to be handled, the digitized version lets you see them in their entirety, and also explains each of the drawings, which I found very helpful.

Drawing of a Little Girl, by Norman Frank Sheridan, Sr.

Drawing of a Little Girl, by Norman Frank Sheridan, Sr.

The heart of the exhibit are the ledger drawings, so, called because many Native artists recorded their experiences in surplus government accounting notebooks. FYI, there’s generally not a connection between the type of ledger paper and the subject depicted.  Employing various media such colored pencils, crayons, markers, acrylics and ink, they are painted mostly on ledger paper, but also graph paper, fine art paper, and even deer skin.  Some are highly stylized, others very realistic.  Many are very detailed.  Below are some of my picks.

Norman Frank Sheridan Sr, paints more traditional subjects, such as a victory dance, a war party, a courting scene.  He uses a very bright, limited  palette (3-4 colors each drawing) with a distinctive orange.  I especially liked a lovely drawing of a little girl surrounded by dragonflies, which are a protective symbol.

Break from Tradition, by Chris Pappan

Break from Tradition, by Chris Pappan

Chris Pappan’s detailed graphite portraits often employ distortion:  “I intentionally distort portraits because people have a distorted idea of Native people.”  One of the more poignant works in the exhibit is his “Break From Tradition,”  which portrays members of an Osage delegation that traveled to Washington DC, probably to press the government to uphold their land rights;  if you look closely, you’ll see its on paper used to record  a real estate transaction.  Be sure to also look at his portrait of Chief Wahshunga, which is beautifully detailed.

Joel Pulliam employs a distinctive red color in his 2012 watercolor series of members of warrior societies and medicine societies (and one Lakota woman with a parasol); note how the subjects are all in profile. One of these works is at the beginning of this post.

There’s also a series focusing on events in women’s lives, where you’ll find the stylized, brightly colored works of Lauren Good Day Giago, such as “Making of Relatives” depicting her and her husband ceremonially adopting a relative’s daughter.

Kiowas Black Leggings Society Victory Dance by Sherman Chaddlesone

Kiowas Black Leggings Society Victory Dance by Sherman Chaddlesone

One of the more stunning pieces is a painting of a Kiowa Black Leggings Society Victory Dance by Sherman Chaddlesone.  Painted on a fringed shawl, it depicts women dressed in red and black battle dresses, carrying their male relatives’ war trophies in a ceremony honoring the veterans. 

In addition to the paintings, you’ll also find a magnificent straight up bonnet made of wool, ermine skin and eagle tail feathers, from 1890.  The Blackfoot consider these bonnets to be sacred, and the right to wear one can only be conferred in a transfer ceremony.  (Nearby is Terrance Guardapie’s drawing of a headdress transfer ceremony).  This is why the wearing of these bonnets at games and fashion show has become controversial.

In an adjacent area is a Kiowa Battle Dress by Vanessa Jennings in red and dark blue wool, decorated with imitation elk teeth (bone), German silver conchos, military patches (Vietnam vet), as well as embroidered brass sequins, encircled by a silver belt.

This is a small selection of the many magnificent works you’ll see in this exhibit.  Leave yourself time to go through and grasp the ways in which the history and culture of the Plains People have been expressed over the last few hundred years.   Unbound is on view until December 4th; don’t wait that long to see it.

I will be posting more images to my Instagram account.

Native American Art

Raymond C. Yazzie, 2005. Silver inlaid with coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, 14-karat gold accents. 2⅜ x 1 in. Collection of Mark and Martha Alexander. Photographer: Michael S. Waddell

Raymond C. Yazzie, 2005. Silver inlaid with coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, 14-karat gold accents. 2⅜ x 1 in. Collection of Mark and Martha Alexander.
Photographer: Michael S. Waddell

Earlier this week I stopped by the National Museum of the American Indian   to see the wonderful new exhibit, “Glittering World:  Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family.”   I’m so glad I did.

The Yazzie’s hail from Gallup, New Mexico, with brothers Lee and Raymond and their sister Mary Marie being the most celebrated of this incredibly talented family of jewelers.  Working mainly with stones native to the Southwest United States, they fashion rings, necklaces, belt buckles, earrings and other adornments primarily from turquoise, coral and silver, but also jade, lapis lazuli and occasionally, gold.  About 300 pieces of their finely handcrafted jewelry are displayed. In addition to showcasing the exquisite workmanship of this family, the exhibit also places their work within a larger commercial, geographic and cultural context, intermixing pieces from the Museum’s collection with the Yazzie’s jewelry.  

Raymond C. Yazzie, 2013. Lone Mountain turquoise, 14-karat gold, silver. Diameter, 2 in. Collection of Lloyd and Betty Van Horn. Photo by Scott Hill

Raymond C. Yazzie, 2013. Lone Mountain turquoise, 14-karat gold, silver. Diameter, 2 in. Collection of Lloyd and Betty Van Horn.
Photo by Scott Hill


Providing some more context is an informational display about the different types of turquoise found in the Southwest, as well as short videos that provide additional background on the exhibit, and feature the artists speaking about how their Navajo culture and the Southwestern landscape have influenced their approach to their craft. 

The exhibit continues through January10th, but I’d urge you to see it now, as I’m sure you’ll want to go back.

Greater Cocle footed vessel in the form of a stingray, AD 1100-1400, Panama

Greater Cocle footed vessel in the form of a stingray, AD 1100-1400, Panama

The Museum, located in the former Customs House at Bowling Green, has much to offer.  You can find wonderful examples of masks, ceramics, woven baskets, and textiles created by Native peoples from Canada, the US, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean  The main exhibition, “Infinity of Nations” is organized geographically, combining pre-historic, historic and modern examples of clothing, household and ceremonial objects, many of which have delicate, intricate, beadwork.

Sauk Moccasins, Oklahoma, ca. 1880

Sauk Moccasins, Oklahoma, ca. 1880

The Museum grew out of the collection of George Gustav Heye,  a New Yorker who collected individual items, archeological collections, and photographs of Native peoples in North and South America.  Heye opened the first iteration of the Museum in 1922 at 155th Street and Broadway; in 1989 it was transferred to the Smithsonian.  The current Museum has collections not only at the Customs House but also in Washington, DC.  You can read more on the Museum’s website


Walrus Spirit, Larry Beck, 1982

Walrus Spirit, Larry Beck, 1982

In addition to its more anthropological holdings, the Museum also displays the work of contemporary Native American artists.

You can find lots of activities for families throughout the year at the Museum.

On Thursday, August 27th, the Museum will host a concert:  Native Sounds Dark Water Rising and The Ollivanders       6:00 – 8:00 FREE       

Be sure to stop by the gift shop, especially if you’re looking for books on American Indian history and culture.

Not only is this a wonderful cultural institution, it’s also FREE!