ELECTRIC TEEPEES AND NEON DREAMCATCHERS: How to Shop For Native American Fashion Ethically and Blissfully

It’s really actually quite easy, if you know where to go and what to look for.
Publish date:
September 14, 2012
clothes, shoppables, style, cultural appropriation, ethical fashion, playing Indian

There has been a lot of attention given lately to the lives, imagery, sacred symbols and customs of Native Americans/First Nations people being re-imagined as a “fashion trend”. (Sometimes right here in our own little xoJane community!)

You stay classy, Urban Outfitters.

If you are anything like me, you were taught a thoroughly sanitized version of the colonization of Native people in American history class. The atrocities committed, the lives lost and the shame and brutality Natives endured have been whitewashed, to put it mildly.

It’s mind boggling to think that as recently as 1978, Native people were actually barred from practicing their own religion. Yet I was free to dress as Pocahontas for Halloween at age 8. This, in a country that prizes religious and personal freedoms above almost all else.

Add that bit of knowledge to the fact that history has long painted Natives as either bloodthirsty savages or frightening wild creatures that need to be tamed, and you begin to see why they are so pissed at being reduced to whimsical caricatures by retailers looking to make a buck.

Paul Frank.

It’s a sticky wicket, because the art and imagery of Native culture is mesmerizing and beautiful to many, myself included. All the recent discussion about “misappropriation of culture” has made lots of people unsure how to shop for and wear beautiful Native fashions and jewelry ethically, which is sad, as jewelry making and crafts are a large source of income for Indigenous people. It’s really actually quite easy, if you know where to go and what to look for!

I want to pause right here and say that I absolutely could not have written this without the help and resources of many, many, dedicated Native bloggers and specifically without having read and absorbed the brilliant words of xoJane commenter 10100111001. I have linked source material anywhere I have used it as a reference, and every link in this post is worth further exploration. I honestly really owe ten million and one smooches to 10100111001.

I started going to New Mexico for vacations regularly with my parents as a child. (It was an easy drive from Texas!) Shopping for Native crafts, art and jewelry while we were there was a big shared experience in my family, and there was always all this hilarious subterfuge whenever I would find something I loved from a particular artist that was more than my meager allowance I had saved up for the trip.

One of my parents would then (SO obviously) sneak back to buy it for me and hold onto it until Christmas, and I would act très surprised when I opened it. My mom taught me that Native treasures and adornments were special, collectible, and meant to be cherished for a lifetime.

For the amount of money I saved up and paid for this vintage "squash blossom" necklace, you can be guaranteed that I will be holding on to it for a lifetime.

The funny thing about being mindful of cutural appropriation as it applies to Native persons is that there are really only 3 things that are off limits for non-Natives to wear and buy: traditional clothes, war bonnets, and religious regalia. Only 3 things!!! Not that hard to do.

Religious regalia is a pretty broad category, but a good rule of thumb is that if it feels like something someone in a PBS documentary would be wearing, avoid buying it. And yes, moccasins are totally fine. They are just shoes, for god's sake!

The war bonnet in particular is a loaded symbol. Feathered war bonnets are not even the most commonly used Indian headdress! Not only does the war bonnet hold great personal significance, they are only worn on very special, highly symbolic occasions.

The fact that they have become a catch-all shorthand for “Indians” is pretty horrifying. It’s the blatant homogenization of 566 unique and wildly different cultures into nothing more than a silly prop. Thanks, Hollywood.

The art of making an informed purchase of Native goods is in knowing your source. If the thing you want to buy doesn’t have a clear description of who made it, where it’s from, and its cultural significance, don’t buy it.

It's also illegal in the US to falsely present items for sale as being Native produced when they are not. You can report any instances of items you see falsely claiming to be "Native made" to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board at: iacb@ios.doi.gov.

I've gone to great lengths to vet all the items here as being made by actual Native artists. A good source of Native fashion news is Beyond Buckskin, an unbelievably smart blog with an equally brilliant online boutique.

Beaded Neon green wayfarer style shades, $79.00. By Cree/Metis artist Candace Halcro. (Also available in black, pink and white!)

OG Landlords women's tank, $20.00. By Jeremy Arviso of Noble Savage.

Neon Suede and chain bracelet, $55.00. By Navajo brother and sister team TSOul.

Tribal print maxi dress, $300.00. By Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribe member Bethany Yellowtail.

There aren't words to express my love for this beaded baseball cap. It is one of a kind. This paticular one is sold, but check out the artist's Etsy page linked here and below to see about ordering your own.

Native pop beaded baseball cap, price upon request. By I.D.K., enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington State.

Hand painted sneakers, $62.50. By Joy Lynn Parton (Oglala Lakota/Ft. Sill Apache)

Purple/Pink beaded barrette set, $40.00. By Julia, Shawanaga First Nation Ojibway band.

Vintage Navajo "Old Pawn" squash blossom necklace, $600. Artist unknown. More at NativeAmericanJewelry.org.

Pendleton Mills is a point of contention in some Native circles. Pendleton has historically used Native designs and sold the finished blankets and robes to Native people, who then sold and traded them amongst themselves. As a result, Pendleton's goods are now heavily incorporated into "traditional" Native cultural activities.

Pendletons are very special gifts in my family. A Pendleton Eagle Rock saddle blanket was the last gift I gave to my grandmother before she passed away. My grandfather has it now, and I gave the same blanket to my mother last mother's day. The one my mom then in turn gave me resides at the foot of my bed.

One could argue that Pendleton has, in their own way, appropriated Native American culture the most. However, Pendleton maintains close ties with Native communities, donates money to Native causes, and is, for the most part, very mindful of Native designs that are "sacred" and therefore off-limits for commercial sale.

Pendleton custom Macbook cover, $55.00. By Ginny Vyvyan.

Morning star medallion, $67.00. By Dean Couchie, Nipissing First Nation.

Take the time to research where the goods you are considering purchasing came from. Ask questions. Use common sense. If the price seems too good to be true, it's most likely not an authentic piece of Native art.

Respect and support the artists keeping Native art and culture alive for you to wear and enjoy. If a Pow Wow gathering is coming to your neck of the woods, don't miss the chance to attend and snap up some primo quality stuff. I'll be at the Thunder and Lightning Pow Wow in California September 28-30. Come visit, ya hear?

(I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison)