Native American fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail had an epiphany while attending the protests at Standing Rock in 2016. “As I was in these spaces where I normally would not have been, I saw these friends, and women, and sisters, my relatives who maybe would not step into a leadership role,” she says. “I saw them bloom and I saw them blossom into these women they were always meant to be. They stepped into their own power.”
The Los Angeles designer channeled the moment of inspiration into the latest collection of her B.Yellowtail line, which she recently debuted at the World of Wonder Storefront Gallery in Hollywood. Among her brightly colored dresses and intricately patterned women’s wear, she based a particular piece on ledger art. Originally drawn on tanned bison skin, then transferred to paper after the near eradication of the buffalo in the late 1800s, ledger art recorded everyday life for the Plains tribes, as well as battle exploits, relationships and the encroaching cultural changes — and erasure — brought by Manifest Destiny.
For what she says is her favorite of her latest collection, Yellowtail collaborated with illustrator Wakeah Jhane to capture the ledger art style, depicting seven women of various ages sketched on a long skirt. Yellowtail says that the skirt has a deeper meaning. “Indigenous people think about their actions today and how they will affect our grandchildren and seven generations forward. Everything you do affects them,” she says.
This forward-thinking design ethos is the core of Yellowtail’s practice: She makes fashion with a message. “People get it, they get that what we're trying to do isn't just about creating beautiful clothes, selling jewelry, but it has purpose, it has meaning," she says. “It can be a catalyst for a message.”
In a time where big retailers like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters steal indigenous design, small-time "makers" on Etsy or Instagram are complicit in cultural appropriation, and the persistent Coachella headdress still summons groans across the internet, the importance of true Native American creators such as Yellowtail becomes even more pertinent.
Navajo/Diné model Siera Begaye, who showcased a flowing yellow dress during World of Wonder’s step-and-repeat, emphasizes why authenticity is important to Native American design. “Native culture, when it's authentic, it comes from within,” she says. “It comes from within your spirit. You put out something, when you make something. You put your spirit into it, and you give it life. And that's something I see in Bethany's work.”
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Yellowtail says that her design work “transcends normal fashion shows because of what we're trying to tell through our clothing and our stories.” She uses tradition, history and her own lineage as a jumping-off point to create something new and distinct. "I'm from the Northern Crow and Cheyenne nations. This collection is inspired by old-style Crow and Plains beadwork. I love floral designs from the early 1900s, and a lot of our beadwork and traditional designs were influenced by that.”
She also collaborates with other Native makers and designers to mash up cultural styles, bringing a contemporary feel to sometimes ancient art forms. “[We’re] celebrating what's happening now, right now in indigenous America and indigenous communities.”
By highlighting other Native American designers, Yellowtail amplifies the reach of their creative efforts, and together they can fight cultural erasure one dress at a time.