BRIDGING THE NATIVE AMERICAN COMMUNITY AND FASHION

STYLE/DESIGN

BRIDGING THE NATIVE AMERICAN COMMUNITY AND FASHION

Q&A with NATIVE(X)’s founder

Text: Periscope

In November, Native American Heritage Month, two controversies surrounding the mainstream's adaptation of Native American culture broke out: Victoria’s Secret's use of Native American inspired costume and No Doubt's "Looking Hot" video where Gwen Stefani and the band members play cowboys and Indians. Both the lingerie shilling company and the genre bending rock band ended up apologizing. Every time this type of controversy brews, it becomes clear that there is a large divide between the exoticism that seems to inspire the non-Native population and what the Native American community sees as offensive insensitivity.
Through NATIVE(X), Mac Bishop wants to help bridge that divide by creating a platform for Native artists to reach a larger audience.

What is your view on the recent round of controversies surrounding American pop culture's take on Native American culture?
Native people are justifiably sensitive to the misappropriation of their culture and the way non-Natives portray them in pop-culture. Recent events include Victoria’s Secret’s “Native American” headdress, Gap’s MANIFEST DESTINY tee shirt, and No-Doubt's offensive music video. These events are terrible and perpetuate stereotypes, but these controversies can also have a positive effect because they create awareness and exposure. They make people form an opinion.
   Improved awareness starts in the classroom. History gives context. It’s crazy to think that just over 100 years ago Indian children were taken away from their families and forced into boarding schools where the motto was, “Kill the Indian, save the man”. You think this is what schools today teach? No way. There is a total lack of cultural awareness when it comes to Native history and contemporary life. For Native American Heritage month, I interviewed six influential members from the Native community, and a couple of them touched on the discrepancy between actual history and that which is taught in history class. What I’m getting at is that most Americans don’t even actually know the history, and this creates a void in understanding and awareness.
You had your own learning experience?
Yes, when I was a sophomore at Cornell, I thought a fashion line would be a great way to raise cultural awareness. And I made these shorts using Native-inspired fabrics, and I told the story about the fabric being named after Chief Joseph, a famous Nez Perce leader. The goal was to get people talking about a Native American leader and his story and his people. I thought I was doing a good deed, but one day I got a Facebook message from Ojibwe tribe member Caleb Dunlap. And he started writing on my Facebook page, “You are exploiting Native people for your own good,” and “You are stereotyping us as one culture”. We took it to email and spoke about the diversity in Native cultures across the US. In reality, Native America is composed of hundreds of cultures. There are 562 federally recognized tribes. They all have distinct cultural beliefs, art, and traditions. He helped me realize that this idea was bigger than me creating a fashion line, and that it could be a way to actually collaborate with Native artists and help tell their story. I emailed him about a year after this interaction, and since then we’ve stayed in contact. We now Skype every once in a while and he’ll call me out if he doesn’t like what I’m doing. In a way, the NATIVE(X) brand is a synthesis of my interactions with various members of Native community. It’s their input that I’ve built this brand on.
   I always pictured a social mission behind NATIVE(X), but the understanding wasn’t there for me. I like to joke with Caleb that there are two NATIVE(X) eras, a pre-Caleb and post-Caleb. Pre-Caleb, I had good intentions, but didn’t really understand how to act on those intentions. Post-Caleb, I realized that this could be so much more as a collaboration with the Native designers and artists.
You’re making bags and you want your customers to understand how they were designed?
After launching into the art business, I realized that there weren’t enough people who collect art and understand the art market. So I’m thinking to myself, “What do I know?” and “What would get people excited about Native design?” Fashion was the answer. Everybody is interested in fashion. I mean, you gotta wear clothes! Helping Native designers and artists enter the fashion industry seemed like an interesting idea. Especially with recent events, the fashion industry needs authentic Native design. I feel like it is a good way to create exposure and also grow the art market. I see Native fashion design as a gateway into the Native art market. Fashion gets people excited, they read the story, and then they are more likely to buy artwork.
Being from the family that owns PENDLETON, what was your experience like as a kid with Native cultures?
Without the PENDLETON experience, I wouldn’t have started NATIVE(X). There is no way I would have had the exposure that I did. I’m really grateful for that. From a young age, I can remember going to work with my dad on Saturdays and Sundays, and admiring the Native American inspired blanket designs. When I was in high school, we went out to the Umatilla Indian Reservation for Dad’s naming ceremony where he received the name, One Who Rides with Blankets or tsitskaneenwushuthla in Umatilla. My grandfather collected Native art, was active in the Native community, and had an Indian name as well, Just Doer of Good Things.
How is PENDLETON perceived by Native community? How is PENDLETON different than other apparel companies who misappropriate Native culture in their fashion designs?
Today, PENDLETON’s blankets are treasured gifts at pow wows and rites of passage in Native communities around the country. It’s common for Native people to be buried in their PENDLETON blankets alongside their other prized possessions.
PENDLETON opened its doors in 1909 and started selling blankets to local tribes. During the early 1900s PENDLETON’s blanket designer, Joe Rawnsley, would actually go out and live with the communities for months at a time and then come back to the mill with inspiration and designs for that tribe or region. PENDLETON made blankets for Native communities while Navajo weavers made blankets for the white tourists. Kind of ironic, right?
Today, PENDLETON still works closely with the Native community to design its Native-inspired blankets. They have a series of blankets and their proceeds go to the American Indian College Fund; there’s another one called the Legendary Series that honors Native symbols, traditions, and beliefs. In the Legendary Series advertising, PENDLETON notes “Each blanket is a lasting symbol of the mutual respect between PENDLETON and their loyal first customers.” PENDLETON is in a way a steward of Native blanket design. After 100 years of working together, a certain level of trust has been established.
Tell us about the social mission that surrounds NATIVE(X)?
N(X) works with Native artists to help promote their work and then we also give back to the community by sponsoring art classes for children on reservations. People often question why I’m doing this, and my answer is that I care. I care about the well-being of the first inhabitants of the land we call home. I care that artists and designers receive the recognition they deserve. Through the PENDLETON brand, my family has worked with Native communities for over a century, and I care that my network and set of skills will give Native artists a louder voice in the marketplace.
You are also trying to educate the public about Native cultures?
Native culture is complex and diverse and I have no intention to tell the their story from my perspective. I want to create a platform for artists and designers to get their ideas and designs out there to a larger audience.
   From an art standpoint, NATIVE(X) is organized to highlight the distinct regions or tribes within Native America. If you compare a Southwest tribe with a Northwest tribe, you’ll see different types of art, different beliefs, different landscapes, etc. I want to bring those regional experiences online and that’s where the NATIVE(X) name really comes from. It’s a function of a distinct region.

Links

NATIVE(X)
http://www.nativex.com/

12.05.2012

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