Thanks to school textbooks, museums, and pop culture, we all have had at least a basic education about the indigenous people of the United States—perhaps more, if you happen to be an ancestor of the community or otherwise personally tied to it. But for clothing designer Bethany Yellowtail, this general understanding is far from satisfactory. With her culture typically preserved in museums (yet often stuck in the era of the 1800s, as she says) or depicted in movies (but typically filling misrepresented, stereotypical roles), it’s not really a surprise that she didn’t have many Native American fashion designers whose career she could follow when creating her own ready-to-wear line. So she's carved a path all her own.
“I didn’t imagine myself being a fashion designer when I was a teenager or younger, but in our communities, the culture of creating is very much alive,” Yellowtail, who grew up on the Crow reservation in the Northern Cheyenne nation of Montana, tells us. “There is so much brilliance in indigenous creativity, and I grew up seeing incredible regalias, seeing aunties and grandmas sitting around the table making things for our cultural events. I didn’t say ‘We’re fashion designers,’ but really that is what we are. We are creators.”
Following her time at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, as well as in various roles at larger brands, Yellowtail launched her own line, B.Yellowtail, in 2014, inspired by her heritage and using images and techniques she grew up with. However most recently she’s become the focus of a new six-part docu-series, alter-NATIVE, which releases its final episode this coming Tuesday, April 3. “To try and crack the fashion business is no easy task—and being Native American offers its challenges,” says the World of Wonder filmmaker, Billy Luther, “but having seen her single-minded focus and determination up close, I wanted to follow her on her journey.”
The timing feels pertinent and exciting for Yellowtail to have a platform to tell her story for many reasons. To begin, with festival season around the corner, we can’t help but anticipate at least one thoughtless attendee wearing a traditional war bonnet to the main events. “That is most definitely cultural appropriation. Wearing ceremonial regalia and being in spaces where there are alcohol and drugs—we don’t do that, and it is very much frowned upon,” Yellowtail explains to us.
However, more important, as the political climate in the world has prompted so many marginalized communities to raise their voices in protest, there’s perhaps no better time for a young indigenous designer to reclaim her heritage on a mass scale.
“We are starting to understand that the old systems that are in place are no longer serving us,” she says of the current worldwide shift. “A lot of the fashion industry, as we know, has done a lot of damage to, not only our environment but our economy. Fashion and art can be revolutionary in that way if they choose to be and choose to do it in an authentic way.”
While Yellowtail has been vocal about supporting the Women’s March—in 2017 she even designed a custom scarf for indigenous women to wear during the inaugural event—as well as Stand With Standing Rock, her fashion line and e-commerce site have been the most constant form of honoring her culture and helping it flourish into the future. “We have 20 artists that sell on our website, and all of them work in rural reservations,” she tells us. “They are able to sell their work at a fair price, and we get to send money back to our communities every week.”
At its core, this give-credit-where-its-due practice is absolutely everything to Yellowtail's brand. And to an even wider audience, it serves as a guide for how we all can appreciate and honor a culture, specifically one that might be different than our own. "What I challenge people to ask themselves is How is this purchase really impacting Native American people?" the designer explains of how to support brands from indigenous cultures. "When I go home [to Montana], my community is at a 70% unemployment rate. When I see in mass markets how much money and economy is driven off of Native American influence and how brands are really striving off of it, that’s not okay to me. Our people deserve to have dignity and livelihood just like everyone else. Imagine if we had ownership over our own cultural identity through fashion? That would change our community entirely."
Keep scrolling to take a look at the first episode of alter-NATIVE, and shop products directly from B.Yellowtail's site.
Watch all episodes of alter-NATIVE, available online now.