thoughts for today

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Last month I took a trip to Pendleton, Oregon and the Umatilla Indian Reservation. My friend is working on her Master's thesis and needed to visit some sites in the area. One of those places was Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts, a gallery and studio for printmaking and the promotion of Native American Art, particularly of the contemporary variety. The small gallery is super lovely inside and I fell for several prints. One of the artists, exhibiting there is Marie Watt, who created "Blanket Stories", a beautiful series of collages (pictured here) celebrating the tradition of wool blankets.

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We also visited the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute , the only Native American museum on the Oregon Trail. Growing up in the Northwest, I've visited a lot of museums and it was refreshing to experience the story from a Native American point of view. If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to both the museum and the Crow's Shadow Institute. Visitors are very much welcomed and it's a great way to support these communities.

On this trip I started mulling over the "Native American trends" I see popping up everywhere in the design world. Overall, I am not really comfortable with these products because I feel that the origin and history of the designs are getting lost. It's also another reinforcement of ownership that is unfortunately a huge part of our history and even our present day. I decided for myself, if there is a Native American design I truly love, than I need to buy it directly from the source and learn it's history. Here are some super interesting reads on the topic:

Thoughts on Pendleton's Portland Collection.

A history of Pendleton's relationship to Native Americans.

On wearing a headdress.

A great overview of thoughts on Native American "trends".

An open letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day.

I'd love to hear other (respectfully delivered) thoughts on the issue because I think it's a topic that everyone in our community should be aware of.

Artwork by Marie Watt. Thanks to Juliane for the inspiration.

9 Comments

  1. Hey Chelsea!
    This kind of thoughtful awareness is why your blog has stayed in my reader for as long as it has.
    I definitely find it troubling that so many trendy items borrow from so many cultures, but I’m actually not sure that any use of a minority culture’s symbols is okay, even if we do know where they come from, or buy “from the source”. It’s less problematic, yes, but it still may remove the signifier from the signified (words that are the basis of reasoning why the “hipster headdress” is never okay).

  2. Hi Chelsea, this is great. I’ve actually been doing a lot of online searching on this topic recently and have landed on a lot of the blogs you mention above. Even though I have never been one to wear a headdress, or, you know, get dressed up as “Pocahontas”, I feel like I still have a lot to learn from many of these posts. It’s great to get the perspective of Native women on recent fashion trends and to learn about the work of Native artists and designers.

  3. thanks so much for sharing this work! i have needed some inspiration lately and looking at marie’s work really is energizing. and i agree about the native american designs and objects becoming trendy. the appropriation of these things reminds me of all the other things we just claim because we can and it doesn’t seem to hurt anyone (like the environment). good, difficult things to think about.

  4. This is a tough issue to have a firm opinion on one way or the other. To me, it’s a pretty case-by-case thing, because I don’t see it just as being about Native North Americans – the topic applies to pretty much every culture.

    North America has become a highly multicultural part of the world. And as that’s happened – and is happening – the people that are already here are being exposed to (or waking up to the presence of existing) differences. Delicious, exotic foods, languages, and new manners of dress. I think it’s natural – and exciting, really – that people become curious about these things and come to love them themselves. So when things like pashmina shawls, Fair Isle patterns, or moccasins really jump out in the design world, I don’t think that should be discouraged. It’s a happy side effect that comes hand in hand with exposure to new cultures.

    I see it as such: Is it wrong for someone from Vietnam to fall in love with a traditional element of Native North American garb, and then want to create their own version of it? And is it wrong for other people to fall in love with that designer’s version, and want to wear it?

    I understand that the implications change when the garment in question has a full history of social or spiritual importance – like a war bonnet, or a rosary, as examples. I’m not saying that I think it’s wrong for someone of a different culture to adopt these things, but I think the decision to do so should be done with respect and with lots of thought.

    It’s just a tricky subject all around, but I really believe that as long we have open conversations like this, as long as we’re willing to see everyone’s argument, and as long as we act thoughtfully and respectfully, we’ll be going a long way to finding true solutions.

  5. Thanks for this post, Chelsea. I recently brought this subject up in the comments section of a popular fashion blog, who had posted some sneakers with an image of a Native in a headdress on them. I continue to be a bit surprised that there isn’t more awareness of this subject… but if more people talk about it (like you have here) then there will be. Great links. Again, thanks.

  6. It’s refreshing to have a style blogger actually talk about this. Thank you. This type of discussion needs to be a bigger part of the fashion industry, and consumer culture at large.

    Thanks again!

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