The Southwestern Association for American Indian Arts (SWAIA) Fashion Show in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the preeminent event in North America for premiering new collections from Indigenous fashion designers. Curator and art historian Amber-Dawn Bear Robe created the event in 2014, and has since brought luminaries of Native North American fashion like B.Yellowtail, Sho Sho Esquiro, Jamie Okuma, Loren Aragon, Patricia Michaels, Violet Ahmie, Orlando Dugi, and Yolonda Skelton to the runway each year.
Born in Alberta, Canada, and a member of the Siksika Nation, Bear Robe has spent her career working and lecturing in Native art institutions, including the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is also one of six Native artists and scholars featured in the new Art of Native America Audio Guide. I spoke with her about the annual SWAIA event, the dark history of American design, and what it means to “Indigenize fashion.”
Could you walk me through your journey of becoming a curator of Indigenous fashion?
Amber-Dawn Bear Robe:
When I was in high school, I contemplated being a fashion designer. Later, I graduated with a BFA in textiles and fiber arts. I got two master's degrees: one in art history and one in Native studies, focusing on Indigenous art. And so I’ve always been involved in contemporary Indigenous art. I was a lecturer for many years, and then I went back to Canada to work as the director of Urban Shaman, the largest Indigenous-artist-run center in Canada and the United States.
That role opened up an opportunity to move to Santa Fe. One of my first contracts there was at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), where I was asked to put on a fashion show of Indigenous designers. I saw this as an extension of my curatorial field…. You know, I’m looking at the history of Indigenous fashion, and focusing on artists and designers and communicating with models. It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t pushed.
Can you explain the work that you do with the SWAIA fashion show? How did the event get started?
The SWAIA Indigenous Fashion Show started in 2014. It stemmed from the fashion show I did for the MoCNA. The very first fashion show that I did with SWAIA was really put together with gum and shoelaces. We had no budget, the event was outdoors, and it was very grassroots. You know, we drove all the models to the runway in the back of a U-Haul.
To me, Indigenizing fashion is quite simply having representation of Indigenous designers on a national platform.
– Amber-Dawn Bear Robe
It featured designers Bethany Yellowtail (owner of B.Yellowtail), Sho Sho Esquiro, Orlando Dugi, and Jamie Okuma, all of whose careers have just exploded both in terms of their presence in fashion and Indigenous fashion specifically. Those were the fun days. It’s definitely much more orchestrated and has a bigger budget now, but ever since that first fashion show in 2014 it’s been constantly growing and growing and growing. We’re now maxed out at the largest venue where the fashion show can take place. I want to expand this into a SWAIA Indigenous fashion week.
What are your goals when planning the fashion show?
The goals are to give the audience an experience they cannot find anywhere else in terms of the representation of Indigenous fashion, and to be a platform for the Indigenous designers to have the freedom to express and explore their creativity without being pigeonholed into what people might expect from Indigenous designers.
I also usually include a performative element with contemporary performance artists. It changes every year, but it really is an experience. Another goal is to give exposure to Indigenous designers and models working in the field of fashion and art.
You’ve written extensively about the concept of “Indigenizing fashion.” Can you go into detail about the thinking behind the idea?
I came up with Indigenizing fashion because “decolonizing” was a word that seemed to be used a lot starting around 2012. I heard about decolonizing constantly in the art world and in politics, and the reality is that we can’t decolonize. Another reality is that I don’t want to live in a decolonized world, because I like having computers. I like having technology.
Decolonizing is a utopian idea, whereas I look at Indigenizing as something that is practical and that can happen. To me, Indigenizing fashion is quite simply having representation of Indigenous designers on a national platform. And that is multifaceted, but fundamentally it is about representation.
I mean, even at The Met Gala this past year, the theme was America. I expected to see a lot of appropriation, like headdresses, buckskin beads, and leather fashion. Not at the exhibition, but at the actual event. Instead, there was just no mention of Native Americans at all. To me, not addressing it is just as harmful as the appropriation. There was no representation at The Met Gala. I know there was one model, but she was not representing an Indigenous designer.
The narrative of American fashion is Native North America. When you look at the history of fashion, in the 1920s there was a strong push by anthropologists to encourage designers to look at the collections of Native American pottery and textiles to inform their designs and create a uniquely American fashion identity. Native American artists were really pivotal to having an American fashion that was distinct from European fashion. It’s an interesting history that is often not addressed. For it to be erased and excluded is really harmful. And so Indigenizing fashion to me is the representation of Native American art designers and their creativity.
What are some inspirations that the designers you select for the fashion show draw upon?
I can’t speak for all designers—remember, I’m not a designer—so this is my subjective opinion. But from what I’ve witnessed and from what I’ve heard from the designers, they’re really drawing from who they are as Indigenous people. Each designer is really drawing from and inspired by who they are and where they come from, and where they come from of this land.
And that is the land that you are from. When you look at the designer Jamie Okuma, her inspiration and her collections is so uniquely different from, say, the designer Yolonda Skelton, who is Tlingit and from the Pacific Northwest coast. So, Yolonda Skelton is drawing from her Northwest coastal roots, that land, that history, and formline design from that region. It is uniquely different from the beaches and oceanside of California where Jamie Okuma comes from. When most people think of Native Americans, they don’t think of sandy beaches, the ocean, and palm trees, but that’s the land where Jamie Okuma comes from. Each designer uniquely represents who they are, the land where they’re from, and who they are as Indigenous people. And the diversity of Indigenous nations is unique to each generation, to each region, to each culture, each family. There’s no pan-Indian response I can give.
In the Art of Native America Audio Guide, you mention that trading ideas and materials has been an important part of Indigenous culture long before European contact. Can you speak about that in more detail?
I think trade is absolutely an important part of Native American culture, as trade is important for everybody around the world. The concept that it was the Europeans or the Spanish that came in here and introduced trade is false. There have always been huge trade groups between the Indigenous cultures in what we now call Canada and the United States. Not only of material goods, but also of ideas, songs, and stories.
Culture is always changing and is a living and breathing growing entity. There’s no one time period where Native culture was like, “Oh, that’s the authentic, original, quality Native art at this time, because this was before it was tainted by European trade goods.” Native North Americans were trading much before European contact with South America. That is who we are as human beings and that’s important to survival, as well. Trading and exchanging ideas, techniques, and materials for livelihood and ceremonial use.
You have said that art and culture are living and breathing entities and never stuck in a nostalgic past. Can you expand on that?
There’s this idea that Native North Americans are buckskin, beads, and leather, and that’s the way we want our Indians to stay. It’s very complicated because Native Americans used to be a national identity marker for America for the rest of the world. The reality is culture—period—not just Indigenous culture, but culture globally is constantly changing. It is a living entity. Culture is living and growing and changing with the world around it.
That’s no different with Indigenous art and culture. It is a living and breathing and changing entity—and that evolution is going to be different for each Indigenous culture.
The expectation of what an “Indian” may look like was really cemented into American ideology. The nineteenth-century photographer Edward S. Curtis made twenty volumes of nameless Indian across Canada and the United States. People don’t realize this, but he staged his photographs. He would go along with a trunk full of outfits and have his models put them on and stage his photos. I think a famous one was of warring parties. Native Americans weren’t warring at that time. They were relocated and living in very horrible conditions. That nostalgic image that Edward Curtis created was his version of what an Indian looks like. And that really has been burned into the idea of an Indian across the world. America just picks and chooses what it wants from Native culture and then doesn’t want to deal with the rest.
But that’s why I do what I do. When I’m standing at the end of the runway and maybe there’s only like a thousand people there, at least I’m affecting a thousand people and showing them a creativity that they are not going to see anywhere else. Those little moments of joy mean a lot.
You can hear more from Amber-Dawn Bear Robe in the new Audio Guide for Art of Native America at The Met.