November 28, 2017

Long journey: A traditional kayak frame comes to New York

NY museum staff at kayak frame welcoming ceremony si
Members of the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York hold a welcoming ceremony for a kayak frame built in the traditional Yup'ik way at the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska. A testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the Native cultures of the Arctic, the kayak frame will become a teaching exhibit when the New York museum's imagiNATIONS Activity Center opens this May.

In May 2018, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York will unveil a brand-new exhibition space, the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, or iAC. The center will be geared towards a young audience, offering hands-on interaction with the origins and outcomes of Native innovation. One section of the iAC will highlight the kayak, an invention designed by the Inuit, Yup'ik, and Aleut people as long as 4,000 years ago. The focal point of this section will be a full-size traditional Yup’ik kayak frame—15 feet of historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales. Acquired by the museum from the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska, the frame was built by Troy and Ethan Wilkinson with the guidance of their father Bill, who studied for many years under the revered traditional Yup’ik kayak-maker Frank Andrew. In the iAC, the kayak frame will serve as a visually compelling example of Native craft and ingenuity that lives on today.

Duane Blue Spruce, public spaces planning coordinator for the museum in New York, spearheaded the effort to obtain the kayak, and was the main point of contact with Alaska during the months-long process. I had the pleasure of speaking both with Duane and with Bill Wilkinson, co-founder of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok (or Kwig, as the locals call it) about their perspectives on the experience.

Bill described to me the history of Qayanek, humbly crediting his knowledge and skill to his father-in-law, Frank Andrew, who was part of the last generation of Yup’ik people to be taught traditional kayak-building practices. Frank agreed to be Bill’s teacher, and Bill spent 19 years working with him and developing his knowledge. For the majority of the time it was just the two of them, but Frank spent his last six years teaching Bill, Noah Andrew Sr. (Frank’s son), Ethan Wilkinson and Troy Wilkinson to use traditional materials, such as driftwood and sealskin, to construct the kayaks. Bill said he “tried to learn how to build them how they would have built them 100 years ago or more.” They used their teeth to bend wood, caulked the joints with seal oil and moss, and colored the wood with traditional natural pigments. In Bill’s words, they were “always pushing the envelope.”

Kayak frame close-up
Made using historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales, the frame is lashed with sealskin and dyed with natural pigments.

In New York, Duane expressed his fascination with kayak hunting, pointing out that each item a Yup’ik hunter uses is essential. On display in the exhibition Infinity of Nations is a Yup’ik hunting hat, part of the hunter’s efficient and balanced system. Duane explained that the hat not only shields the hunter’s face from the sun, but its conical shape amplifies the subtle echoes of the sounds made by seals and fish under the surface of the water. Bill emphasized that the tools of a Yup’ik hunter kept him alive, and since his kayak was custom-made for his body, it became an extension of his being.

For 13 years, Bill was the only apprentice to Frank Andrew and his vast knowledge of kayak-making. Many family members helped to translate countless questions from Bill to the ever patient Yup’ik elder, and Bill shared much of what he learned with his sons Troy and Ethan. From the time the new Qayak Center was built in 2000 until he passed away in 2006, Frank, with Bill's urging, expanded his training to a deeply authentic level for all four of his students. Bill recalled watching Frank Andrew speak with his son in Yup’ik, joking that the “DSL connection" between the two led Noah to perfect his skill in about a quarter of the time it took him. “I think we’ve been successful in creating a small but new generation of traditional kayak builders. And they can choose to go to schools or build them or pass them on, or not. But I’m off the hook now.

“I don’t want to be the last guy,” Bill explained. “This knowledge should be back in some Native hands. And we’ve done that, so I consider that kind of successful.”

Noah Andrew
Frank Andrew’s son, Noah Andrew, poses with what Bill calls a “loon kayak.” The boat's skin is covered in seal oil and soot, traditional Yup’ik kayak-making materials. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

For Duane, from the first call to Kwigillingok in October 2015 to the arrival of the frame in February 2016, the experience was a complete adventure. The museum’s Mary Ahenakew and Gaetana DeGennaro happened upon the Qayanek website, and fate had it that Bill was willing to sell the frame. The four-hour time difference, mounds of paperwork, and 4,000 miles of distance pushed everything up to the wire, and a December 31 New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant deadline loomed at the horizon. Duane maintained weekly contact with Bill, sometimes even reaching him between classes he teaches at the local school in Kwig.

The request to buy from Bill was processed in Washington on December 23, eight days before the NYSCA grant deadline. People working on the project here in New York couldn’t help but be giddy. They regarded the last-minute victory as a “Christmas miracle,” a few even suggesting that none other than Santa Claus himself had agreed to ship the frame.

But what to do without Santa’s sleigh? “OK,” Duane remembered thinking to himself, “we’ve bought this thing. How are we gonna get it from Alaska to New York?” Bill’s experience finding a way to ship the enormous frame from tiny Kwig to New York was a true testament to the ambition and hard work of his family and the Kwigillingok community. The process he described echoed the sense of adventure that Duane felt on his end, yet was wrapped up in the difficulties of life in the Alaskan bush. Bill built an 18-foot, 700-pound custom shipping crate in the back aisle of their grocery store, which was the only indoor place it would fit. He and his son Ethan then had to disassemble it to get it out the door, reassemble it in a blizzard, and haul it a quarter of a mile through the same blizzard to the school. There, it was stored until the kayak was carefully secured and ready to begin its journey to the museum.

The final transport plan included movement on land, water, and sky. Bill stressed the danger associated with landing planes in the tiny Kwig airport, lightheartedly mentioning that “it’s very skinny, and it’s very short. . . . One pilot came out and landed on this airport, went back to Bethel, and said ‘I quit.’” The frame was flown from Kwigillingok to Bethel, and from Bethel to Anchorage. Then it was transferred to a steamship and rode the waves from Anchorage to Seattle, where it was picked up by a truck and driven to New York.

Kayak and plane
A plane prepares to take off with the kayak frame from the airport in tiny
Kwigillingok, Alaska. Making the frame's custom shipping crate is a story in itself. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

The frame arrived at the museum on Wednesday, February 3. Duane recounted that he had happened to call Bill to check in on the shipping status the day before and was astonished to hear that not only had the frame been shipped, it was set to be delivered the next day. With less than 24 hours to prepare for the arrival, the project team figured out all the logistics just in the nick of time. It was obvious that Bill took great care in packing the frame. He wrote detailed instructions on the wooden crate, complete with miniature drawings and little black circles that indicated which screws should be taken out first, as well as a playfully blunt warning: “Lid is very heavy! Do not drop lid into crate and crush contents.”

Bill's instructions
Bill Wilkinson’s instructions for unpacking the frame left nothing to chance.

The breathtaking craftsmanship and simple beauty of the piece were obvious as soon as it was unpackaged. Duane held a blessing ceremony to welcome the frame into the space, acknowledging the time and hard work that went into the project and making sure to snap a picture for Bill to assure him that the frame arrived safely and in one piece.

NY staff unpacking the frame
Unpacked! Beautiful and functional, the kayak frame represents Yup'ik knowledge and experience preserved for generations.  

I asked Duane about the importance of obtaining authentic Native objects for the exhibit. He replied that putting pieces like the kayak on display shows that “traditional methods and knowledge are still valid in the contemporary world.” Since the exhibition will focus on both the history and current use of Native innovations, it speaks to the integrity of the museum that so much time, effort, and stress were put into assuring that the kayak was not only culturally accurate, but produced in a Native environment, with traditional materials. Duane noted that, remarkably, commercial kayaks are still designed in an extremely similar way. “It still works!” he said. “The technology still works.”

The singular history of this kayak frame adds to a much larger conversation. Not only does the existence of the frame rely upon the ingenuity of the Native people who first designed it, it also hinges on the dedication of Frank Andrew, his family, and a new generation of builders who keep Frank's legacy alive and believe in the value of tradition and learning through experience. The story of this kayak adds to a broader narrative of cultural exchange and conservation, and the importance of institutions like the museum that work to preserve the memory of Native innovation, as well as support its modern reality. Ultimately, the kayak will serve as a jumping off point for young people who will leave the museum with a deeper and more personal understanding of the lasting impact of Native knowledge and design, and an interest in learning more.

As a middle school teacher, Bill has hands-on experience with the impact that Native history and knowledge have on today’s younger generations. Since the kayak frame will eventually be housed in the iAC here in New York, I asked Bill for his view on the importance of displaying Native objects in educational settings. “Here’s why I think it’s important to young people,” he said with obvious passion. “When they see the genius of kayak building, they realize that they are a part of a culture that is just as smart, just as brilliant, just as innovative, as any other society. Everybody needs to know their own self-worth, their own cultural self-worth. We all have a place in the existence of humanity, and we should all be considered with equal respect and dignity and knowledge. And I think that that’s a really important aspect of teaching people, Native and non-Native, about the brilliance of kayak-building.”

—Althea Meer

Althea Meer spent the summer working as an intern with the Office of Public Affairs at the museum in New York. This fall she begins her junior year at New York University, where she's studying English, Spanish, and web programming.

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November 22, 2017

Everyone's history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known

LandingofthePilgrims DoS

Michele Felice Corné (1752–1845), The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1803. Credit: U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Reception Rooms


“The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” —James W. Loewen, Plagues & Pilgrims: The Truth about the First Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving story you know and the one I know are most likely the same. It’s the story deeply rooted in America’s curriculum—the one that inspires arguably the most important and tradition-filled holiday in American culture. We’re taught that in 1620 the Pilgrims fled harsh religious suppression in Britain, sailed across the Atlantic, and in December stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock, in what is now Massachusetts. With little food and no shelter, the colonists struggled to survive a brutal winter until a friendly Indian, Squanto, came along and showed them how to cultivate crops. Their first harvest resulted in a feast, as the Pilgrims gave thanks to the kind Indians for helping to bring the colony back to life.

This version of Thanksgiving, while pleasant, isn’t terribly accurate. Told from a perspective that frames the Pilgrims as the main characters, the story leaves out major details, glorifying the Pilgrims’ endeavor and the holiday it birthed, forcing the Wampanoag Indians into forgotten roles. It also erases a monumentally sad history. When we pay homage to the Pilgrims and their bravery, and react to the tragic background of America's founding myth with silence, we essentially support a mindset that only some people’s history matters.

First Thanksgiving Brownscombe

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914. Collection of Pilgrim Hall Museum. Not all mythical history is verbal. The Plains Indian headdresses worn by Brownscombe's Wampanoag leaders are probably enough said about The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Top: The shirtless-in-December figure on shore in Corné's Landing of the Pilgrims notwithstanding, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote in his journal that it was four months before the Pilgrims saw the first Indians. Credit: Pilgrim Hall Museum
 

The true history of Thanksgiving begins with the Indians.

About four years before the Pilgrims anchored off Massachusetts, British fishermen had already started making their way through New England, storming through Indian towns to kidnap Native people for profit in the slavery trade. Although it’s often left out of textbooks, this series of intrusions was the catalyst to what is probably the most important event in this nation’s history, without which Europeans would not have been able to settle on top of the millions of Native people who already lived in America—at least, not as fast: epidemic illness.

Before 1492, the Western Hemisphere was largely isolated, sparing its indigenous peoples from diseases the rest of the world succumbed to time and time again. But this lack of contact prevented Natives of the Americas from developing any type of immunity to European, Asian, and African pathogens. When Europeans started trekking through Indian towns, they brought sickness with them. Indians died at an alarming rate, making it substantially easier for colonists to overpower entire villages—well, what was left of them. 

The Pilgrims already believed they were part of God’s plan. Finding empty villages as 90 percent—yes, 90 percent—of America’s Indians perished in front of them only furthered Europeans’ sense of their destiny, influencing them to continue the colonization westward. As Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) wrote in Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories, one of the opening exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, “That initial explosion of death is one of the greatest tragedies in human history because it was unintended, and unavoidable, and even inevitable. But what happened in its wake was not.” 

One people who famously suffered from the onslaught of disease were the Wampanoag, a nation made up of 69 villages scattered throughout present-day Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Skilled hunters, gatherers, farmers, and fishers during spring and summer, the Wampanoag moved inland to more protected shelter during the colder months of the year. Like indigenous groups everywhere, the Wampanoag had a reciprocal relationship with nature and believed that as long as they gave thanks to the bountiful world, it would give back to them. Long before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag held frequent Thanksgiving-like celebrations, giving thanks in the form of feasts and ceremonial games.

Exposed to new diseases, the Wampanoag lost entire villages. Only a fraction of their nation survived. By the time the Pilgrim ships landed in 1620, the remaining Wampanoag were struggling to fend off the Narragansett, a nearby Native people who were less affected by the plague and now drastically outnumbered them.  

For a moment of history, the interests of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag aligned. When the Pilgrims landed in New England, after failing to make their way to the milder mouth of the Hudson, they had little food and no knowledge of the new land. The Wampanoag suggested a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the Pilgrims would exchange European weaponry for Wampanoag for food. With the help of an English-speaking Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum (not Squanto; he spoke English because he was kidnapped and sold in the European slave trade before making his way back to America), the Pilgrims produced a bountiful supply of food that summer. For their part, the Wampanoag were able to defend themselves against the Narragansett. The feast of indigenous foods that took place in October 1621, after the harvest, was one of thanks, but it more notably symbolized the rare, peaceful coexistence of the two groups.

—Lindsay McVay

The events that followed the first Thanksgiving also depart from the peaceful ideal we celebrate. To read what happened next, see the earlier post Do American Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?

Lindsay McVay is a senior at the University of Central Florida, majoring in writing and rhetoric. Her professional experience includes writing grants for nonprofits; contributing to blogs, especially Book Baristas; and designing websites for Florida independent publishers. During the fall of 2017, Lindsay has worked as an intern in Marketing and Communications at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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August 13, 2017

Doing "what I could," Wilma Mankiller changed Native America

Review by Sequoia Carrillo

Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller. Photo by James Schnepf, courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation.

“I hope that when I leave it will just be said: I did what I could.” –Wilma Mankiller

In Mankiller, by filmmaker Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, the legacy of a true female powerhouse is explored. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Wilma Mankiller was the sixth of eleven children. When she was 11 years old, her family moved to San Francisco under the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Relocation Program. The move was supposed to relieve the family of the poor living conditions in their homeland and bring them to a “modern world.”

Through archival footage and photographs, the documentary depicts the obvious flaws in the BIA’s reasoning. The Mankillers’ move to the Bay Area resulted in dangerous conditions and the striking realization that they were poor. In Oklahoma they often lacked running water and electricity, but they consistently had a community of people who lived the same way. They quickly found that what was poor in Oklahoma was destitute in California.

“It was in San Francisco during the Civil Rights Era that she found her voice and the power to make change.” —President Bill Clinton

A teenage Wilma Mankiller acclimated to an environment with elevators and societal unrest as the 1960s roared around her. Although she was a peer with many of the student activists who gave the San Francisco Protest movement its voice, by the time she was 20 years old she was married and a mother of two. Despite this, she assisted and supported the early Black Panthers in their mission to feed elders and children. In fact, her daughters emphasize in an interview clip that the political and activist side of life was always a given with their mother.


“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival begins to play as archival footage of the occupation of Alcatraz rolls. The film does a brilliant job of depicting the spark that Alcatraz set off inside Wilma Mankiller. She and her family participated in the protests alongside such activists as John Trudell and Richard Oakes. Many Indians herald the occupation, which began in November 1969 and lasted 19 months, as the event that brought Native America into the modern era. The occupation yielded direct results in federal policies signed by President Richard Nixon.

“More than anything it was like coming home and I felt that I was where I should be.” —Wilma Mankiller on the occupation of Alcatraz

Following the occupation, Wilma Mankiller continued to volunteer frequently in the Indian community. She and her daughters eventually moved her back to Oklahoma to work for the Cherokee Nation. Much of the film’s dialogue following her return to Indian Country is from her peers. I found this particularly poignant because of the widespread reverence she received from Natives and non-Natives, Democrats and Republicans. This support is unusual for any politician, but especially for a woman more than a generation ago.

After successfully initiating and raising the funds for a clean-water project that reinvigorated unemployed tribal members in Bell, Oklahoma, Mankiller gained recognition. As a result, she was approached to run as deputy chief in Ross Swimmer’s 1983 bid to be principal chief. Despite rampant sexism, including death threats, she won alongside Swimmer.

Groundbreaking as deputy chief
Deputy Chief Mankiller (center) at the groundbreaking for a new development project. Photo courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation.

After Swimmer stepped down in 1985, Mankiller ran two successful campaigns earning her a decade as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. In her last race, she won 83 percent of the vote. The headlines flash across the screen as a victory that ten years before was scoffed at becomes a reality.

“In a just country, she would have been elected president.” —Gloria Steinem

Wilma Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 1998. She revolutionized the largest Indian-run health care system in the country. She doubled annual tribal revenue and tripled tribal enrollment. Under her leadership the Cherokee Nation became what her parents had set out for decades earlier—a modern world.

The voices of her peers depict the life of a woman who surmounted societal pressure to make her life a living example of achievement and dedication to others. The film successfully documents this challenging rise to power by honoring her in remembrance. Mankiller is impactful and soft-spoken, just like its namesake.

 

Mankiller will open the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 15. Director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl will be in attendance. To watch for other screenings, follow the film on Facebook or Twitter.

Sequoia CarrilloSequoia Carrillo (Navajo/Ute) is an intern in the Office of Public Affairs at the National Museum of the American Indian. In the fall, she will be a junior at the University of Virginia, where she is specializing in History and Media Studies. During the school year, Sequoia works for the American History podcast and public radio program BackStory.

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August 04, 2017

Q’eswachaka, the Last Inka Suspension Bridge

By Allie Plata

Qeswachaka Bridge by Doug McMains
The Q'eswachaka Bridge has been rebuilt continuously since the time of the Inkas. Photo: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian

The importance of the Q’eswachaka Bridge, which crosses the Apurimac River in Canas Province, Peru, is extensive. To understand the impact this bridge has had on the Inka Road and the communities it connects today, it helps first to understand the history behind the bridge.

As the Great Inka Road, or Qhapaq Ñan in Quechua, was constructed, many logistical problems arose. Spanning nearly 25,000 miles, the Inka Road network runs through many different terrains, including the Andes Mountains. To solve the problem presented by steep canyons and gorges, the Inka  pioneered suspension bridges that would allow soldiers, messengers, and officials to safely cross and further expand their civilization's reign. These suspension bridges, which connected regions that had previously been isolated from one another, were essential to the organization and administration of the state and played a crucial role in the social history of the region. After the fall of the Inka Empire, the bridges survived for centuries and continued to serve as vital links in the Andean road system until the 20th century.

Chroniclers claim that the Inka used suspension bridges to extend their rule into new regions as early as the 13th century, when the Inka Mayta Capac conquered lands west of Cusco, and spanning into the 16th century. The Inka military use of the bridges can be divided into two sections: the control of lands and peoples already within the empire and the subjugation of new peoples. Even before the Spanish arrived in the empire, it was a common practice in warfare to cut bridges down or to burn them. The goals were both offensive—to isolate opposing warriors—and defensive—to stop invaders or prevent thoughts of retreat among one’s own army. Once a bridge was destroyed it took weeks to rebuild it. Bridges contributed to the downfall of the empire as well, by allowing the Spanish to cross into Inka territory, although bridges were also burned to slow the Spanish from reaching Cusco.

Pulling the cables taut
The main cables are stretched across the river before the old bridge is cut down. Men from neighboring communities strain to pull the new cables taut.

Inka bridges have three common design characteristics: braided cables of natural fiber form the floor and handrails, stone abutments anchor the cables on either side of the bridge, and vertical ties run between the main cables and handrails. If you look at modern bridges and compare them to the structure of the Q’eswachaka, the Inka bridge differs in that the main cables used to create the bridges not only support them, but also serve as the walkway.

Weaving the bridge 1
Weaving the bridge 2
One team of master bridge-builders begins weaving from the right bank of the river while the other weaves from the left. 

The location of the Q’eswachaka Bridge—the only remaining suspension bridge of its kind—has remained the same since the reign of the Inka. The 500-year-old tradition of construction is maintained by members of four Quechua communities—Huinchiri, Chaupibanda, Choccayhua, and Ccollana Quehue—who rebuild the bridge each year. People from the communities harvest a local grass and prepare it to be woven into cables. All of the cables begin with small cords formed by twisting together the harvested grass. The small cords are then twisted together to form a larger rope, and these larger ropes are braided to create the main cables used to support the bridge.

The communities work together to pull the ropes and stretch them out. Builders leave the old bridge in place until they have hauled the new cables across the Apurimac Gorge, then cut it down and let it fall into the river. Once the main cables that will support the new  bridge and serve as its floor are taut, and the cables that will serve as handrails as well, master bridge-builders work from each end of the bridge to weave its sides. Sticks added every few feet help keep the bridge from twisting. When the master builders meet at the center of the span, all the remains is to lay matting over the bridge's floor. 

The finished bridge
The builders meet in the center of the bridge. Assistants will lay matting over the cables of the floor. Then, everyone celebrates!

The bridge-builders are so skilled, and their collaboration is so well coordinated, that it takes only three days for them to rebuild the bridge. Afterward the local communities come together for a celebration. The bridge connects the communities literally and figuratively. Rebuilding it is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years and a joyous experience for people to be a part of. The Q’eswachaka Bridge acts as a link between the past and the future, and it serves as a great example of the innovation and engineering abilities of the magnificent Inka Empire.

You can see a replica of a section of the bridge, woven by the communities, in the exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire—on view at the museum in Washington, D.C., through June 1, 2020. Or visit the exhibition online in English or Spanish.

Allie Plata (Comanche Nation of Oklahoma) is a student at the University of Kentucky (class of 2018) studying Integrated Strategic Communication and a DJ for the campus radio station WRFL.

Photographs, unless otherwise credited are from the video Weaving the Bridge at Q'eswachaka, produced by Noonday Films for the National Museum of the American Indian. 

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June 16, 2017

Makers + Mentors: Hands-on with leaders of Native fashion

Makers + Mentors
Native artists sharing experiences and their thoughts on design and inspiration. From left: Fashion and textile historian Regan Loggans, fashion designer Patricia Michaels, fashion designer Niio Perkins, fashion designer and multimedia artist Loren Aragon, artist and apparel designer Jared Yazzie, fashion model Jade Willoughby, and editorial hair stylist Amy Farid.

As an intern at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this summer, I had the pleasure of attending last week’s Makers + Mentors event, a series of workshops and conversations with Native designers, artists, and business owners who make their mark on the world of fashion. The day-long program, inspired by the exhibition Native Fashion Now, on view in New York through September 4, centered around providing guidance and support to young—ages 14 through 24—aspiring designers and artists interested in careers in fashion or design.

At the museum’s welcome and introduction of some of the makers and mentors, I spoke with a few of the young people taking part in the event, asking them what they were most excited to do that day and what inspired them as artists. Two high school students, who told me they are inspired the most by the show Project Runway and the street-wear they see on the sidewalks of the Bronx, are both planning to go to medical school. They emphasized, however, that they want to keep designing, either through a minor in fashion or by dedicating free time to art, even as they pursue careers in medicine. One college student who dreams of one day designing costumes for movies like Beauty and the Beast said that she is constantly assessing the historical accuracy of clothing she sees in films, and that historical fashion is one of her biggest inspirations. I even had a chance to speak quickly with one of the mentors, fashion model Jade Willoughby (Ojibwe). Gesturing to the two younger girls sitting with her at the table, she told me that she is inspired by “the passion of other people in this industry—the passion that drives designers’ dreams into reality.”

Courtney Leonard  Makers + Mentors
Courtney M. Leonard speaking during her Place + Identity materials lab.

Next, I attended Place + Identity, a materials lab led by Courtney M. Leonard (Shinnecock). The lab was located in the Coat Room, or “Camel Room,” of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs house, and the room's ornate air (its ceiling is painted with camels) provided a dynamic contrast to Courtney’s down-to-earth approach to success.

Courtney, a multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker, gave us a peek into her creative process, showing us photos of the subway, skyscrapers, and sea creatures—all inspirations to her. I admire her apparent ability to find patterns and structures in nearly anything, and I wish I could be as creatively unafraid as she is with her work. She showed us how she used landscape and location to begin creating a piece of clothing or jewelry, saying that “the landscape that is around us is the culture, the being, and the essence.” She also spoke about her attachment to Long Island’s Shinnecock Nation, and how she used images like the thunderbird from Algonquin mythology to find fresh, unique patterns for her work.

We all then began designing and creating mock-ups of structural jewelry. Courtney encouraged us to start with simple shapes we see around us and find a pattern from there. Here is the set of earrings I created, inspired by the pointed toes of the businesswomen’s shoes I see on the subway every morning, as well as by ballet shoes, and suggesting the shape of a fish. 

Earrings design project
Designing from the shapes around us: A pair of earrings based, in part, on the shoes New York businesswomen wear.

During the lunch break, I spoke with a few girls who are students at a fashion high school in New York. Their style inspirations range from their parents to the clothes of the ‘70s, Ariana Grande, and flower gardens. When asked why she is passionate about design, one student replied that “from a piece of fabric you can create anything—it’s extremely expressive.” Another gave me her perspective on the importance of supporting Native artists, saying that non-Native designers can study Native cultures, but they do not have the same first-hand experience with those cultures that gives Native designers such a unique and powerful artistic perspective, and the authority and knowledge to use aspects of their cultures in a way that does not take advantage of Native communities.

At my next lab, textile designer and performance artist Maria Hupfield (Wasauksing First Nation) taught our group how to sketch and carve out our own rubber stamps, which could be transferred onto fabric to create an ink pattern. I was amazed by the creativity of the people around me—no one in the group had made stamps before, yet most of the students seemed right at home, experimenting with blank space and different materials to stamp on. Maria had a very calm approach to her work and spent most of her time visiting people who seemed to be struggling and reminding them that perfection was not the goal.

I think the lab was so exciting because we were able to create something completely our own that we could transfer onto almost any surface. One girl carved out her name in the rubber and begged her friends to let her stamp it onto their backs. Here’s the moon-shaped stamp I created, and a few patterns I did on leather. I tried to create the effect of a shadow over part of the moon, but I didn’t really achieve this. (Maria very kindly told me it was great.)

Stamps
My stamps, including the moon. Perfection, Maria reminded us, was not the goal.
Patricia Michaels
Patricia Michaels conducting a tour of the exhibition Native Fashion Now.

I was lucky to attend the tour of Native Fashion Now guided by fashion designer Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo). It’s hard to write briefly about the fascinating collection of pieces she spoke about, but I will say that I was amazed that she knew more than half of the featured designers personally. Patricia stressed that the Native design community is a tight one, and that many of the artists are in constant communication, creating a vital web of support and collaboration that drives their success.

To wrap up the day, fashion and textile historian Regan Loggans moderated a conversational panel discussion. Patricia Michaels, Niio Perkins (Haudenosaunee), Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]), Jade Willoughby (Whitesand First Nation), and editorial hair stylist Amy Farid (Osage) shared their thoughts on Native design, inspiration, and personal responses to struggle. I know it’s a cliché to say that their stories were inspiring, but they truly were. As an English student who sees fashion simply as a side hobby, I found myself considering what impact I might be able to make on the fashion world in the future, and how I could help support the compelling work of Native designers and artists. The panelists especially emphasized that they had to fight to find a place for themselves in an industry that is not kind to newcomers, or outsiders. I wrote down a few of my favorite quotes, and I’ll share them here to wind up this post:

“I think my authentic self is still trying to figure out where I sit in the world.” —Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]), on his personal relationship with the struggle to self-define his work

“Don’t tell me how to be Native. I am Native American. That’s what makes it Native.” —Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), in response to people who say that her designs are not truly Native

“Everything is at our fingertips. We have no excuses that we shouldn’t be where we want to be.” —Patricia Michaels, on the responsibility and empowerment that modern technology gives to contemporary artists

“There’s a story behind what we present. There’s meaning behind what we have in our work.” —Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), on the authenticity of Native design

“I have to stand my ground most days, but this is the work I want to do.” —Jared Yazzie, explaining how he deals with constant criticism

“We’re all human beings. At the end of the day, we fit in everywhere.” —Amy Farid (Osage), in response to the question, Where do Native designers belong in the world of fashion?

“No matter how far you go in life, you will always come back to your people. In this life or the next.” —Jade Willoughby (Whitesand First Nation), on the importance of remembering the place you came from

Thanks for reading! I strongly recommend you check out these designers. Exploring their work really gave me a new perspective on the ever-expanding and changing role of Native fashion in the chaos of today.

—Althea Meer

Althea Meer is an intern with the Office of Public Affairs at the museum in New York. In the fall she'll begin her junior year at New York University, where she's studying English, Spanish, and web programming.

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