Oregon Native designers celebrate heritage, counter mass fashion

Luhui Whitebear, assistant director of Oregon State University’s Native American Longhouse, says indigenous artwork is connected to Native teachings and traditions. (Zoe Schuh/The Pride)

Sydelle Harrison visits the Pendleton Woolen Mills almost every time she goes home. As a clothing designer, she is constantly looking for new blankets and patterns to make her sought-after jackets, cowls and bags.

For Harrison, who is Yakama and grew up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the mill isn’t just a place to find beautiful fabrics. It’s a place to continue a longstanding relationship between the mill and her family that dates back to the early 1900s, and to showcase patterns that tell their stories.

“I’m honored when I make things with Chief Joseph (pattern) to tell that story, share those extra details and why it means so much to me and why it means so much to my family members,” Harrison said.

Across Oregon, a growing number of popular Native American artists and designers are confronting mass fashion trends and celebrating their heritage through their work. They see the importance of owning a space to express and represent themselves instead of letting non-Native people tell their story — a concept called indigenization, or bringing the ownership of their art back to the people to whom it belongs.

Harrison first started making clothes five years ago, selling simple coin purses at craft shows before focusing on designing kids’ jackets. In the years since, her label, Kanaine, has grown to include larger bags, cowls and jackets for women and children. Her pieces, which almost all use Pendleton fabrics, mix multiple design elements and echo her own diverse background.

“I believe in having a diverse perspective even though a lot of my material is classified as Western,” Harrison said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re a Native artist, or you’re Western because of the fringe,’ but I like people who can appeal across all of those things because that’s really how I grew up.”

Troy Douglass is another designer who shares his culture through his label, Cultural Blends. Its name was inspired by his Grand Ronde and Filipino heritage.

“What I try to do when I create product is really live up to the name of Cultural Blends and the philosophy,” Douglass said. “You actually learn about people’s cultures that are different from your own and you find there are commonalities. It’s in those commonalities that bridge people together.”

Douglass had made a name for himself creating clever designs, such as hats with “1977” in the Trailblazers font that Damian Lillard himself has worn, and shirts with “The Best Coast” written over the Washington, Oregon and California license plates.

One of his designs — simply the words, “The Originals,” in white on black — was printed specifically with Oregon tribes in mind.

“If they could put it together as ‘the original Oregonians,’ that’s what I wanted,” Douglass said. “I wanted that to give some power and really uplift. I can see Native people being very proud wearing it.”

Troy Douglass
Troy Douglass, owner of Portland label Cultural Blends, plays basketball in one of his limited edition designs. (Photo by Matthew Kort, courtesy of Cultural Blends)

Not everyone has the right to claim Native American work.

Only members of a state or federally recognized tribe can sell their artwork as Native American under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act. This was put in place to protect Native American art from being taken and sold by non-Native people.

While the law has helped protect some traditional and modern pieces from being appropriated by others, it hasn’t stopped people from using those themes.

Numerous clothing retailers and designers have taken heat for appropriating or misusing Native American designs, including Urban Outfitters and Jean-Paul Gaultier. That can be harmful, said Luhui Whitebear, who is an enrolled member of the coastal band of the Chumash Nation and the assistant director at Oregon State University’s Native American Longhouse.

“It’s not just an aesthetic, it’s part of our stories and part of our understanding of who we are,” Whitebear said.

Native American themes aren’t only taken and used in fashion, but also in crafts.

“Sometimes people think indigenous art is really romanticized and pretty, and a lot of the designs through beadwork and quillwork are really beautiful,” Whitebear said. “But there is a lot of it that is connected to teachings that aren’t always known.”

People who buy Native American items that haven’t been created by indigenous artisans often don’t understand the rich history and context of the piece. Consumers sometimes unknowingly use Native symbols and traditions in ways that disrespect the meaning, usually at the expense of the people in those tribes, Whitebear said.

This wave of Oregon designers and artisans wants to show it’s not OK to take those symbols that have had significant meaning and reduce them to a T-shirt design.

“Indigenizing doesn’t just mean using laws and policies, but also bringing our presence to where it’s usually not,” Whitebear said. “We’re reminding people that we’ve been here way before the United States was here. This is part of who we are. We’re connected to the land.”

— Yanling Joslin, Cleveland High School

— Zoe Schuh, Roosevelt High School