February 21, 2015
Dear Lynn Yaeger (Vogue.com), Maya Singer (Style.com) and other fashion press including Elle Magazine, TheFashionSpot.com, Kaltbut Magazine, ashadedviewonfashion.com, and flaunt.com,
It is clear from your recent reviews of the KTZ Fall/Winter 2015 New York Fashion Week show that you do not understand the issue of cultural appropriation and the reasons why cultural theft by non-native designers is damaging to real Indigenous peoples.
According to Marjan Pejoski his recent collection is “a tribute to the primal woman indigenous to this land, who evolves into a sexualized, empowered being”
Obviously he is not aware of the centuries of sexual violence committed against Indigenous women first by Conquistadors and explorers, then continuing through history into today where one out of three Native women will be raped, usually by a non-native man. The overt sexualization of native women in popular culture stems from colonization and manifest destiny where the Native female’s body represented the valuable land and resources of this continent. Both were ripe for the taking in the minds of European kingdoms, and later the American government. As female reviewers, wouldn’t you want to join Native women in our fight to be seen as human beings with rights and not as sexualized stereotypes?
Furthermore, the fashion world celebrated Pejoski’s collection for his creative design-work. The design work was NOT his creation and was stolen directly from contemporary Native designers and living cultures without permission including a dress from http://www.byellowtail.com/. The fashion world does not seem to understand the concept of permission, especially when it comes to the material culture of Indigenous people. To understand the concept of permission, you must first understand the physical and cultural genocide that Native peoples have survived.
Throughout United States history we have survived forced removals, which for many turned into death marches. We have survived atrocities, which included small pox blankets and monetary rewards for the scalps of Native men, women, children, and elders. We have survived mass murders and many of our ancestors lie in mass graves. We have fought to maintain our cultures through the boarding school era where children were ripped screaming from their mother’s arms and imprisoned in terrifying environments where they were punished for speaking their language. We have maintained our cultures through the outlawing of our religions and dissolution of our governments. The list goes on.
As an Indigenous person today we do not walk free of our history, the burden of historical trauma is passed on from generation to generation. We embrace and celebrate our language, our adornment, our dances, our ceremony, our traditional knowledge, and our stories because these are the gifts that our ancestors preserved for us through unimaginable trauma. They guide us and nurture us. They make us whole. Our material culture is a testament to our resilience; it is not to be lifted by outsiders for the sake of being subversive and trendy.
We will not stand for the theft of something so precious. The artwork that we create is more than just adornment; it is our ancestors speaking through our hands and our hearts. When I create my jewelry pieces I am telling stories that have been nurtured from generation to generation for thousands of years. My favorite quote from Chickasaw author Linda Hogan captures this feeling:
“Walking. I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
As Native designers and artists, we want to share this love with the world. We seek to be seen as vital and essential contributors to the design world. We seek to be seen as human beings who have remarkable stories to tell and values to teach. We who are connected to our Native communities create adornment through consultation with our elders. What we share with the world is shared in a thoughtful and responsible way. We do not launch our careers to pull only ourselves upwards because we are “the result of the love of thousands.” We are driven to succeed because we share our success with those who made it possible.
I urge you to join us in this mission. Do not exclude us but rather seek us out. Do not laude cultural theft and let stereotypes erase our existence in the minds of the fashion world. Allow us and only us to represent our communities and our histories. We are many nations speaking many languages, with many diverse histories and design traditions. See our humanity and celebrate our voices. Then and only then can we move fashion forward together.
Kristen Dorsey (Chickasaw Nation),
Owner/Designer, Kristen Dorsey Designs, LLC