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Native American fashion aims to reclaim its culture with authentic designs


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Reclamation, resurgence, resilience, all ways to describe what is happening with Native American fashion and art as it becomes more visible.

Kaomi Lee of Twin Cities PBS in Minnesota met one Ojibwe artist who's helping to create authentic designs and is working with one non-Native company to help reconcile past wrongs.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

At her home near Isle, Minnesota, Adrienne Benjamin is part of a growing resurgence in Native design.

Adrienne Benjamin Iamikogaabawiikwei, Artist: I'm designer. I feel like I'm also kind of a teaching artist, I think, first.

Kaomi Lee: Benjamin has been sewing Anishinaabe regalia and cultural attire for decades. She's a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota.

When she was young, an elder taught her how to make jingle dresses and ribbon skirts to keep the cultural tradition alive. Now Benjamin's clothes regularly sell out on social media, and the looks are not just for powwows anymore.

Adrienne Benjamin Iamikogaabawiikwei: When I think about it, I think that it's reclamation in a big way. Even Peggy Flanagan, to be seen, visual representation out there, what that does for indigenous people in general is crazy.

Kaomi Lee: Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan is the highest-ranking Native American elected to executive office. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. She was the first Native American sworn in as a Cabinet secretary. Both made their indigenous identities visible.

One of the products that we carry is NTVS, Natives, and they have a whole different clothing line. They have a lot of different T-shirts.

It wasn't always like that. Boarding schools forced generations of Native Americans to be ashamed of who they were. Few could make a living off their art, and that's why it matters now.

Travis Zimmerman, Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post: So, another company is Round Lake Traditions. And that's by Herb Fineday. He's also a Fond du Lac, and he does these denim shirts.

Kaomi Lee: There are also ribbon skirts, sweatshirts, and hats. And the number of Native clothing brands is growing.

Travis Zimmerman: It's wonderful to see people come in here, especially some of the kids and some of the younger people that want to start wearing these items and take pride in their culture and be able to represent their culture by having a clothing line that's for them and that's designed by people like them.

Kaomi Lee: Today's focus on Native designers in art is an act of resilience to decades of cultural appropriation by non-Native companies.

Zimmerman says anything that uses generic or romanticized Native imagery is probably not authentic.

How is cultural appropriation harmful?

Travis Zimmerman: Well, for one thing, I think that American Indian artists aren't getting credited for their work. And a lot of times with, like, intellectual property rights and things like, that Native Americans. If, let's say they have a beadwork design and it gets appropriated and put on a shirt and someone's selling it, it's like, OK, you just ripped off my art.

Kaomi Lee: But it's complicated. Some big name companies that have appropriated Native designs for years are also beloved by many Native Americans. Some are now trying to make amends.

Jori Miller Sherer is president and a fourth-generation family member at Minnetonka. Her great-grandfather got involved in the company in 1946. Her grandfather joined soon after.

Jori Miller Sherer, President, Minnetonka: And it was really at that time like a gift shop souvenir company. That was a time in our country when people were going on road trips.

Kaomi Lee: The Native-inspired moccasin became the bestseller.

Jori Miller Sherer: Seventy-seven years, for the majority of that time, did not understand cultural appropriation. And I would say, in the last decade, we have really started to think about it and start to begin to understand what it was and what we were doing.

And there were a few years where we were really paralyzed by fear.

Kaomi Lee: But, in 2019, the company reached out to Adrienne Benjamin, who became a reconciliation adviser. Sherer says the company's culture and Midwestern nature was to stay quiet.

But George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. And, with Benjamin's help, Minnetonka started to change.

Jori Miller Sherer: If you're going to do this and do it right, you have to do some serious looking in the mirror, and you have to face things and be open and get past maybe initial self-defense feelings.

And then we, in summer of 2020, published an apology on our Web site and talked about it very clearly. We called it appropriation, so we acknowledged what it was. We apologized for it. We said, come back and check in the fall, and we're going to have more of a plan.

Coming this summer is this collaboration with Adrienne.

Kaomi Lee: Minnetonka also changed its logo, and it collaborated with Adrienne Benjamin on a line of beaded hats and with another Native American designer, Lucie Skjefte, on a new beaded moccasin design.

The company also donates to Native American nonprofits. But change takes time. A culturally appropriated beaded Thunderbird design is still in its product line. Sherer, who's in her late 30s, says that too is getting a makeover. It's these efforts that have convinced Benjamin the company wants to do better.

Adrienne Benjamin Iamikogaabawiikwei: That revolution has to come through allyship. And I know a lot of people maybe don't think that, and that's OK, but I think, like, people can and deserve an opportunity to, like, right their wrongs.

Kaomi Lee: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Kaomi Lee in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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