Bethany Yellowtail: Your Authentic Native American Designer
Thousands of miles away from the hectic and sticky sweat of another NYC summer, one of the fashion industry’s rising talents sits in the stiff chair of a Montana classroom studying Cheyenne Indian culture. Her name is Bethany Yellowtail, and she has made her way onto the scene this past year with a fiery debut S/S 2015 collection called the Mighty Few, which is being sold exclusively online.
After taking some time to find cell phone service on the reservation where she was born and raised, Bethany took a break from her studies to chat with Milk Made’s Chris Thomas about feminine strength, authentic Native American fashion, cultural appropriation, and the dream of a Vivienne Westwood collab.
How are you doing today?
I’m doing good. Just taking a break from my classes. I’m here in Montana taking summer courses on language and traditional art at Chief Dull Knife Community College on my reservation.
Do you think you would ever teach a course on fashion there or at other colleges?
Yeah I’m actually working with a few people on the very beginning stages of a summer course. Language and art is very intertwined in our culture so I want to create a program that brings in traditional arts teachers and then I would come in and talk about how to use it in a contemporary way.
There is so much appropriation of Native American culture in fashion and then you have these beautiful authentic clothes. For people wearing your clothing, it seems to create this juxtaposition of appreciation and appropriation.
There’s a lot of grey area because people don’t really understand what cultural appropriation means. I’ve had a lot of people come to me lately saying they aren’t Native people but would still love to wear my clothing and asking if it’s okay. Yes, of course it’s okay! This is my art. It’s about culture sharing and allowing people to participate in this conversation. When they are wearing the clothes, they are sharing that story.
How do you see yourself in terms of fighting back against cultural appropriation and see yourself as a voice for authentic Native American fashion?
I hope it isn’t necessarily fighting back. I’m just standing up for myself. There isn’t a space where an authentic Native American voice exists in fashion and it’s so overly used in a lot of brands but it isn’t done in a way we know how to do it as Native people. Our designs are intertwined with our art, culture, and language. It’s who we are as Native people. To only take one element of it just ends up diminishing who we are as people.
Is that connected to why you’re taking courses back home at Chief Dull Knife?
Yeah! What I’m doing right now is learning from my people back home, asking questions, and listening to them. Really digging into the creative process to understand what it is I’m sharing. Just to take one element of it or Google a photo of Native Americans doesn’t do it justice. It does a huge disservice to our people and that isn’t honorable. My colleagues are all Native artists so I hope through this brand it carves out a space where our voices shine and thrive.
Have you been working with other Native American artists or designers for your next collection?
My next collection is going to be very inspired by Cheyenne culture so I’m hoping to bring in Cheyenne artists. It’s just a matter of how the story of the collection looks and who will best fit that. Each season I’ll definitely be working with artists from native lands.
I read that you want to start a manufacturing plant on native land to foster economic development. Do you want to start that on your native land specifically?
I would like it to be here because it is my home and that’s where all my family is and it’s where my ancestors are from, but it has to make sense on a fashion level. You need to be able to ship things out timely because this reservation is really remote. I think it’s really important to employ our people. There aren’t very many job opportunities out here and to be able to provide a consistent paycheck is something that people wish for because it doesn’t happen out here.
The ‘Mighty Few’ collection focuses on the supreme feminist. What is the background on that concept?
There are a lot of analogies in the collection that I used, but overall I wanted to speak to what I know. The strong indigenous women are who I come from, and often in fashion certain designers do collections inspired by the ‘primal indigenous woman’ or ‘native people’ and talk about us as if we’re not alive now. They’ll talk about this imagery they have in their head from the past and to me it was really important that this supreme feminine was really speaking to her now and how she’s come from a long line of indigenous women and she’s here. She’s arrived.
Are you looking to collaborate with any brands or do you want to stick to only Native artists?
I think there could be major collaborations with socially conscious brands like Vivienne Westwood. I really admire her brand and who she is as a woman because she’s very conscious of the world she’s in and she is an active learner. I think there will be brands like that who are open to allowing an authentic voice on a bigger platform.
I could definitely see your clothes being used in a music video. Are you getting inspiration from any musicians right now?
I really love SZA. She has such a grungy laid-back style and I really love her music. I had it on repeat while I was designing this past collection. And I’ve loved Beyonce since I was little. It’s my dream to dress her and that’s when I know I’ll have made it. That’s what I said when I was 14.
Visit Bethany’s website here
Photography by Thosh Collins.