SANTA FE — On a recent visit to her home region of Western Canada, fashion curator and scholar Amber-Dawn Bear Robe came across her father’s clothes at a museum exhibit. The garment had been his ceremonial dance dress as a boy, and now it was locked in a glass case. “There’s a sense of deep sadness that I can’t explain, because it speaks to a different narrative about why that piece is in the museum,” Bear Robe told Hyperallergic. “It probably sold for a dollar, but my grandparents needed money.”
Bear Robe has been working overtime on a grand reversal of that history. She is the founder of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Indigenous Fashion Show, an eight-year-old tradition that annually closes the Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest Native American arts festival.
This year, in honor of Indian Market’s centennial, Bear Robe is curating Art of Indigenous Fashion, a simultaneous exhibition of historical and contemporary Native fashion for the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). When Hyperallergic visited her, Bear Robe felt a conceptual push-and-pull between the fashion show and the exhibition, plotting the considerable narrative ground she wants to cover.
“The one overarching element, the only solid one across Canada and the United States, is that Native American design is the original design of this country,” Bear Robe said. “Killing a seal, cleaning out the guts and sewing them together to make a waterproof jacket – you don’t get more haute couture than that.” In that sense, she was disappointed when the Metropolitan Museum of Arts 2021 exhibition In America: A Lexicon of Fashionwhich anchored the museum’s gala, featured only one Native American designer.
Bear Robe’s recent scholarly work has focused on direct links between Native American design and a broader American aesthetic. She explores the topic in an upcoming article for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “In the 1920s, there was a strong push for American designers to go and look at museum collections — historical and ‘primitive’ art including Native American textiles and ceramics — to inform a uniquely American design language,” Bear Robe said of her research. “It was like the ABCs and 123s of how we can appropriate our cultures.”
Establishing Native American fashion’s presence and external influence is only the first phase of Bear Robe’s curatorial approach. She explained that focusing on these broader elements can risk portraying Native culture as monolithic. To push further, Bear Robe engages in conversations with designers to tease out micro-regional narratives that aren’t necessarily written down. Materials, colors, patterns and motifs can link a design to a particular tribe, or – like the beads on the father’s dance dress – even a particular family.
“That to me is the edge I have. It’s not this outsider look; I know these designers and I’ve worked with a lot of them. I want it to be the absolute opposite of anthropological, static art,” said Bear Robe.
This year’s fashion events at Indian Market will debut capsule and full collections from 14 designers on August 20 and 21. Bear Robe envisions the runway as a soaring and stomping timeline of modern Native fashion heritage. Among the contestants, she identifies a trio of fashion “matriarchs”: Dorothy Grant, Himikala’s Pamela Baker and Patricia Michaels.
Grant is known for her bold prints that combine Haida Nation motifs with her line style, and Baker blends First Nations aesthetics from across Canada’s west coast into her fine mixed media jewelry. Michaels, who competed on two seasons of Project Runway, hand dyes and paints sheer fabrics to create haute couture designs with flowing silhouettes.
Their work has influenced a subsequent generation of designers, whom Bear Robe has called “the innovators.” Like Grant, Jamie Okuma and Lauren Good Day are known for their statement prints: Okuma mixes natural motifs with geometry, and Good Day references ledger drawings and textile designs. Ashley Calling Bull and Jessica Matten are among the models taking the runway.
“Then there is another component to this, which is the artists who really blur the line between art and fashion. They bring the performative element,” said Bear Robe. She calls this circle “the rule breakers,” and it includes visual artists turned designers Catherine Blackburn, Jason Baerg, and Skawennati. Blackburn’s elaborate beadwork has graced Indian Market’s runway before; her New Age Warriors the collection was shown in 2019, and became a successful traveling exhibition soon after. This year, she adds vibrant new designs to the clean silhouettes of collaborating designer Melanie LeBlanc.
The exhibit at MoCNA, located one block away from the epicenter of the Indian Market at Santa Fe Plaza, is a tighter arrangement with even more plot to unravel. IN The Art of Indigenous FashionBear Robe will trace the arc of Native American fashion history through an estimated 28 looks.
She had just returned from a trip to Phoenix, where she picked up pieces by the historic artist and designer Lloyd Kiva New from a fashion retailer. Kiva Nye electrified mid-century fashionable silhouettes with playful, Native culture-inspired patterns, adorning his signature leather handbags with metal buckles featuring Cherokee iconography.
Bear Robe has also confirmed appearances by living legends Virgil Ortiz, who is known for futuristic black-and-white prints that riff on Cochiti Pueblo pottery motifs, and Orlando Dugi, whose shimmering embroideries and metallic fabrics evoke Diné creation stories. She had more trouble securing work by some of the younger designers: A piece from Okuma’s line of hand-beaded Christian Louboutin heels has so far eluded her, but she was on the trail of a private collector who could lend her a pair.
“Especially with the exhibit, I’m the curatorial envy of these larger institutions that have a lot more money than MoCNA,” Bear Robe said. “They may have more money, but I have access.” She has been pulling the strings more aggressively lately, as interest in indigenous fashion grows and other curators enter the picture. Recently, Crystal Bridges has developed its Native fashion collection, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is trying to correct its previous blind spots with a second edition of In America.
“Several of the key pieces I wanted to include, museums won’t loan them,” Bear Robe said. “Some of these pieces first appeared in the SWAIA fashion show, but I can’t bring them back to the show, which is so disappointing.” She quickly explained that she is overjoyed to see native designers enter prominent collections. It is simply difficult for her to imagine garments that are in archives when they were once activated by natives. “Just let me get it to the runway and you can take it,” she said.