Ahead of Native Nations Fashion Night, presented in partnership with Fashion Week MN and emceed by yours truly, we caught up with the organizer behind this inspiring event, designer Delina White of IamAnishinaabe. With tickets on sale now, this Indigenous fashion extravaganza takes place April 25 at the Machine Shop in Minneapolis, featuring looks from Golga Oscar (Yup’ik Nation/Kasigluk Traditional Elders Council), Lavender Kingbird (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) and Delina White (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) herself. A 2023 McKnight Fellow, White gave us the inside scoop on why it’s so important to showcase Native American fashion, where she finds inspiration for her designs and what eventgoers can expect.
You were recently named a McKnight Fiber Artist Fellow. What does this recognition mean to you?
I am truly honored and humbled to be among the artists who have received this award before me. I understand the love of textiles, and it’s exciting to know there are others who feel the same way I do about textile elements, color and composition. I’m also excited that fashion design elements and artistic composition using color, texture and cultural traditions of landscape are being acknowledged as an art form.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Is it cliché to say that I get my inspiration from everything? Because everything is art. I see little details in all design elements: architecture, nature and even from within the fabric itself as well as the personality of the individual you are creating for or the model who will be showing it. My designs are always in the foundation of traditional woodland culture. I am Anishinaabe from northern Minnesota, and it’s important for me to be true to my cultural heritage. I also get a lot of inspiration from other designers — the way they form different textiles into shape and complementary form and their use of color. I mean, let’s acknowledge each other for being inspirational!
In today’s world, why is it vital to showcase Native fashion and cultural traditions?
I am just one of many Indigenous individuals who work within their art, and my artwork just happens to be fashion. The medium is actually textiles, because of all of the Indigenous materials that I use. I enjoy working with materials that originate from within the landscape of where my ancestors and I are from — here. What European American society refers to as “resources” are actually “relatives” to Indigenous peoples.
We believe we are related to everything that is a natural gift from the Creator, because they are living and have spirits just as we do. When we believe that trees are our relatives, we treat them better. We take care of them and they take care of us; it’s a reciprocal relationship. Prior to Europeans arriving to North America, the original people to this land had a sustainable lifestyle with beliefs of gratitude and a societal system of integrity. Tribal nations traded amongst themselves for many things of highly prized value, such as copper, pelts and wampum shells. These items in their original form are what I like to use in my apparel and jewelry. It’s a way of maintaining and perpetuating my culture into the future.
Why is mentoring young Indigenous creatives so important to you?
I have great compassion for all my people, especially our youth. My life’s journey has taken me many places and given me many experiences. I’ve never wanted to live anywhere other than my ancestral homelands of the Leech Lake Reservation. My favorite time in my life was spent with my grandparents in their two-room tarpaper shack that was our loving home.
During my travels, I’ve carried my grandparents’ teachings in my heart. My grandmother taught me how to make beadwork, and my grandfather was always doing chores or sitting quietly. The way they lived was intentional, methodical and with so much meaning that went without words. We didn’t have running water or electricity. Life was good, as I was just a little girl and was responsible for nothing, except to play in the woods, swim and be home before dark. My grandparents and everyone spoke in Anishinaabemowin, the language of my people.
Today, I have seven children and seven grandchildren, and I am proud of each of them. I live in my small ancestral village on the reservation, and I consider all the village children my relatives. I knew their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. I can tell them stories about the old ones who’ve walked on and the teachings they gave me. My life’s mission is to protect our cultural heritage and language to the best of my abilities, which is through my artwork, as is my responsibility as a Native elder.
Who are some talented Native designers who are on your radar?
I absolutely love this question, because it gives me an opportunity to brag on other Native designers. Each designer is so fascinating, because only they know what they have in their creative mind’s eye and their abilities to communicate that in the form of textiles through fashion.
Lauren Good Day, Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara from Fort Berthold, North Dakota, participated in my Native Star Light fashion show in 2022. I love her recent collection in black. She uses bold colors in the geometric style of her people framed in gold on black. The colors are eye-catching and just pop! She also has fine leather handbags from her ledger art collection, which is truly a new historical version that reinvigorates the leather satchels from long ago.
I am also a fan of Jamie Okuma, Luiseño, Shoshone-Bannock, Wailaki, Okinawan of the La Jolla band of Indians in Southern California. I have long admired her for being a business woman with a distinct art style that includes beadwork on shoes and bags in a traditional yet uniquely contemporary flair. She has achieved a great level of recognition for her modern images of eagle feathers, cowrie shells and elk’s teeth designs on her elegant, flowy apparel.
I’ve also always admired Yolonda Skelton, from the Gitxsan Nation and the House of Hax-be-gwoo-txw of the Fireweed Clan in British Columbia, Canada, for her ability to mix traditional Northwest Coast designs and materials into a modern style of dresses that include elegant capes and wraps. Her designs are made of heavier materials, including leather and fur.
I’ve also worked with Osamuskwasis, Cree from Pigeon Lake, Alberta, Canada. She is a young designer representing the mountainous area of Cree territory. Her designs include ready-to-wear apparel, like a recent collection in black with images of florals mixed with buffalo and tepees.
Each of these designers has a distinctive design signature that is exciting and one-of-a-kind. I’m happy to see Native designers making their apparel more accessible to the public. For future Native Nations Fashion Night events, I’m looking forward to showcasing up-and-coming designers whose work is on the fringe of becoming known internationally. I’m hoping that Native Nations Fashion Night will become an annual event, because there are plenty of Native fashion designers to feature.
What can Native Nations Fashion Night attendees expect?
I’m teaming up with Fashion Week MN to present the first annual Native Nations Fashion Night, a celebration of Indigenous creative expression through fashion. Hosted by guest emcee Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member Kate Nelson of Artful Living magazine, this fashion show is grounded in the affirmation of inclusion and equity, endorsing the excellence of Indigenous creatives throughout the multifaceted fashion industry. This year’s theme is Northern Lights, the thread that connects the three featured designers across cultures through the traditional beliefs of our ancestors showing themselves in the northern sky.
There will also be a live performance by Yup’ik singer and dancer Byron Nicholai, an expanded artists’ marketplace with original apparel and jewelry, live music from Divewire, and a bar with the night’s Native-themed berry drink. VIP catering will include delicious hors d’oeuvres by Elena Terry of Wild Bearies. Expect to enjoy a rare experience that brings the Alaskan Yup’ik culture to Minneapolis by way of the Anishinaabe of Minnesota.