SANTA FE — On a recent visit to her home region in Western Canada, fashion curator and scholar Amber-Dawn Bear Robe came across her father’s clothes in a museum display. The garment had been his ceremonial dancing dress as a boy, and now it was locked in a glass vitrine. “It’s a feeling of deep sadness that I can’t explain, because it talks to another narrative of why that piece is in the museum,” Bear Robe told Hyperallergic. “It was probably sold for a dollar, but my grandparents needed money.”
Bear Robe has been working overtime on a grand reversal of that story. She’s the founding director of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Indigenous Fashion Show, an eight-year-old tradition that annually closes out 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 concurrent exhibition of historic and contemporary Native fashion for the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). When Hyperallergic visited with her, Bear Robe was feeling a conceptual push-and-pull between the fashion show and the exhibition, plotting the considerable narrative ground she’d like to cover.
“The one overarching element, the one solid thing across Canada and the United States, is that Native American design is the original design of this land,” said Bear Robe. “Killing a seal, cleaning the intestines, and sewing them together to make a waterproof jacket — you don’t get any more haute couture than that.” In that respect, she was disappointed when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2021 exhibition In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, which anchored the museum’s gala, only featured one Native American designer.
Bear Robe’s recent scholarly work has zeroed in on direct links between Native American design and a broader American aesthetic. She explores the topic in a forthcoming article for the 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’ arts including Native American textiles and pottery — to inform a unique American design language,” Bear Robe said of her research. “It was like the ABCs and 123s of how to appropriate our cultures.”
Establishing Native American fashion’s presence and external influence is just the first phase of Bear Robe’s curatorial approach. She explained that focusing on these broader elements can risk portraying Native culture as monolithic. Pushing further, Bear Robe conducts conversations with designers to tease out microregional narratives that aren’t necessarily written down. Materials, colors, patterns, and motifs can link a design to a particular tribe, or — like the beading on her father’s dancing dress — even a specific family.
“That, to me, is the edge that I have. It’s not this outsider look; I know these designers and I’ve worked with many 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 swishing and stomping timeline of contemporary Native fashion legacies. Among the participants, she identifies a trio of fashion “matriarchs”: Dorothy Grant, Himikalas Pamela Baker, and Patricia Michaels.
Grant is known for her bold prints that combine Haida Nation motifs with the formline style, and Baker blends First Nations aesthetics from across Canada’s West Coast in her mixed-media fine 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, which Bear Robe has dubbed “the innovators.” Like Grant, Jamie Okuma and Lauren Good Day are known for their statement prints: Okuma blends natural motifs with geometrics, and Good Day references ledger drawings and textile designs. Ashley Calling Bull and Jessica Matten are among the models taking the runway.
“Then there’s another component to this, which is the artists who really blur that line between art and fashion. They’re bringing 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 collection showed in 2019, and became a successful traveling exhibition soon after. This year she’s adding vibrant new designs to the clean silhouettes of collaborating designer Melanie LeBlanc.
The exhibition at MoCNA, which is one block away from Indian Market’s epicenter on the Santa Fe Plaza, is a tighter arrangement with even more plot to unspool. In The Art of Indigenous Fashion, Bear 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 sourced pieces by historical artist and designer Lloyd Kiva New from a fashion dealer. Kiva New electrified fashionable mid-century silhouettes with playful, Native culture-inspired patterns, and adorned his signature leather handbags with metal buckles bearing Cherokee iconography.
Bear Robe has also confirmed looks by living legends Virgil Ortiz, who’s famous 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 was having more trouble securing works by some of the younger designers: A piece from Okuma’s series of hand-beaded Christian Louboutin heels has so far eluded her, but she was on the trail of a private collector who might loan her a pair.
“Specifically with the exhibition, I have curatorial envy of these larger institutions that have a hell of a lot more money than MoCNA,” said Bear Robe. “They may have more money, but I have access.” She’s been pulling strings more aggressively lately, as interest in Indigenous fashion grows and other curators enter the picture. Recently, Crystal Bridges has been fleshing out its Native fashion collection, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is angling 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 show, which is so disheartening.” She quickly clarified that she’s overjoyed to see Native designers entering prominent collections. It’s just difficult for her to imagine garments sitting in archives when they were once activated by Native people. “Just let me have it for the runway, then you can take it,” she said.