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“Native fashionista” creates runway looks and economic opportunity

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The ribbon skirt is a colorful symbol of Indigenous pride, born of Voyageur trade with Great Lakes tribes.

At Native Nations Fashion Night in northeast Minneapolis, the historic garment was rocking the runway, paired with chunky black boots as Nirvana blared. The look was deeply traditional, yet totally modern.

The same could be said of the fashion show, held in late April, which featured fur apparel made by an Alaskan Tlingit designer (who hunts her own material) alongside bodysuits with translucent skirts that evoked Beyoncé or Taylor Swift.

The show’s creator, designer Delina White, of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is known for contemporary-style clothing and accessories that incorporate Indigenous motifs and materials and reference social issues.

Since the self-dubbed “Native fashionista” boldly launched her design career at age 50, she’s dressed a two-spirit (gender non-forming) model in jingle pants, a riff on Ojibwe jingle dresses worn by female dancers. And made jewelry with vintage rosary beads to reclaim the harmful history of church-run Native American boarding schools.

“Fashion is such a visual art form,” White said. “You can make statements with it.”

Though White’s work has been getting attention — it’s been displayed at Mia and the Walker — her larger mission is to spotlight other Indigenous designers. That’s why she created the largest annual Native runway show and artisan marketplace in the Upper Midwest, now in its fourth year. At a time when global brands such as Louis Vuitton, Levis and Minnetonka Moccasins are collaborating with Native designers, White reinforces the message to “appreciate not appropriate.”

At this year’s Fashion Night, attendees represented multiple generations and tribes from across the region, including Bad River in Wisconsin and South Dakota’s Cheyenne River. The crowd dressed in vibrant colors and dense patterns. The room smelled of burning sage.

White had lined up an especially high-profile model: Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who is known for her striking Native-designed wardrobe.

On the runway, Flanagan told the crowd how “guys on the internet” like to disparage her style, commenting, “That’s not what a Lieutenant Governor dresses like.” “But I am a Lieutenant Governor,” she said. “And this is what I dress like.” The audience roared with applause.

A second career

A month earlier, one of White’s Fashion Night designs — a buoyant hoop skirt with a colorful diamond pattern — was still three cut-up quilts, laid out on a bedspread at her home on the Leech Lake Reservation. White had purchased the quilts, featuring the star design popular with Plains tribes, and was piecing them into a round.

White likes to incorporate natural elements with cultural significance, such as birch bark, red willow and oblong beads made of bone or horn. Her sewing room is stacked with fabric, so her work tends to spread throughout her home, which once belonged to her paternal grandmother. On a living room table, she was assembling jewelry made from deer sheds, cut into cross-sections to look like miniature tree rings.

White’s lifestyle is modest (she drives a Honda with 250,000 miles on it), but her view of Leech Lake is priceless. Though she grew up mostly in urban areas — Chicago, Milwaukee, Houston, Minneapolis — she spent breaks on the reservation near Walker, Minn., where her mother’s family also lived. “I always wanted to come back,” she said.

In 1992, she did. White spent the next several decades raising a family and working for the tribe in administrative roles. But she’d always been interested in fashion. She was a model who competed in Miss Teen Minnesota and, before that, learned beadwork from her grandmother.

When White was in her 30s, she and her husband, Gerald, took their blended family of seven children on the powwow circuit, dressed in regalia they’d made. White’s beadwork impressed other dancers, but it was too labor-intensive for her to justify selling it.

Instead, more than a decade later, White pursued a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, which facilitated a 2015 series of fashion shows in local galleries, in collaboration with her daughters Lavender Hunt and Sage Davis. That project launched White’s brand, I Am Anishinaabe, which has been featured in the country’s largest Native fashion show, in Santa Fe, N.M., and collected by the University of Minnesota’s Goldstein Museum of Design.

White discovered a way to make her beadwork more accessible by photographing her designs and having them printed on fabric. The original beading remains a one-of-a-kind artwork. But the photorealistic reproduction, which she turns into flowy clothing and scarves, can be worn and enjoyed by many within the Native community and beyond it.

Economic capacity

The best way to ensure that clothing and apparel with Indigenous imagery is culturally sensitive, White says, is to make sure it was designed by a Native person. “We trust that the designer is not going to appropriate their sacred or traditional designs that they use in ceremony as a commercial thing,” she said.

Supporting Indigenous designers helps develop the community’s economic capacity, White added, noting how tribal members often leave the reservation for job opportunities. (While the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux have profited immensely from gambling operations on their reservation near the Twin Cities, casinos in more remote areas, such as Leech Lake, bring in far less revenue.)

Grace Goldtooth, this year’s Fashion Night emcee, noted how the show not only brings visibility to Native artisans, but to issues in the community. Goldtooth, the executive director of a Lower Sioux Community nonprofit focused on revitalizing the Dakota language, said she appreciates White’s gift for raising up everyone in her orbit.

“If she succeeds, we all succeed,” Goldtooth said. “She makes room at the table for everyone. One of our cultural practices is to be humble and have compassion, and she executes that so well by being compassionate and supportive to the artist.”

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