Updated: Oct 26, 2020
By Lauren Goulette
Beadwork by Lenise Omeasoo: Image via VOGUE
It’s no secret that beaded jewelry is a staple for Native American culture, especially Native womxn. In many Indigenous tribes, beading marks the representation of strength, survival, and history. Beadwork has been around for centuries –– so why is it just now becoming a relevant topic?
The problem starts with non-Native, large corporate chain businesses selling “Native-Inspired” products, or directly following tribal designs for beaded jewelry. While there is nothing wrong with selling beaded jewelry, it becomes harmful when it appropriates or copies Native art. By doing this, it not only blatantly copies Indigenous designs, but it is harming small, locally owned businesses by Native artists and womxn by profiting off of cultural art. An article written by Camila Caridad Rivas for The Concordian demonstrates the importance of Indigenous artists. Rivas states, “Another important medium for Indigenous women is the use of shells, bones or seeds, the earliest form of beadwork. This was used in everyday life and sacred times, using geometrical patterns, showcasing different shapes and ornaments in a variety of colours.” Popular beading designs originate from those very pieces, influencing modern Native artists today.
Not only does learning about the causes and effects of cultural appropriation have importance, but spotting when a brand or person is appropriating and asking them to take accountability is imperative as well. Recently on Instagram, a well-known Atlanta-based boutique was under fire for selling appropriated earrings. The brand, Ink+Alloy, was seen using keywords such as “Navajo” or “Anishinaabe” for their beaded jewelry. This meant that their Google searches would have their specific jewelry come up, which is profited off of appropriating authentic Indigenous beadwork and culture. Both the Navajo and Anishinaabe, along with many other tribes including the Lakota and Cree, are known for their incredible beadwork and jewelry. The brand also used blatantly copied works of Squash Blossom necklace designs and beaded basket clips, which are both Navajo-made cultural designs, calling it “Modern Bohemian.” Many Native activists were quick to call this a violation of the Indian Arts Act of 1900, which makes posing as if you are Native American and selling copied Indigenous arts illegal. The owner of Ink+Alloy, Gretchen Hollingsworth, responded by making an Instagram post on July 14th, stating “We have had many social media comments accusing…[us] of being in violation of the Native American Appropriation Act... this is simply not true.” All the while deleting comments from Native activists, including Bethany Yellowtail, a popular Native womxn fashion designer and owner of B.YELLOWTAIL. Not only is Ink+Alloy appropriating, but there is also censorship happening. Indigenous activist and poet Kinsale Hueston stated in her comment, which was deleted eight times by the owner, “This post is very defensive, despite many of your items actually having the name Navajo... I don’t see any dedication here by talking to Native beaders… to have conversations with about accountability.
Unfortunately, this is not the only case of harmful appropriation. Countless other large brands, such as Urban Outfitters, have even gotten away with items such as the Navajo Hipster Pantie or the production of racist Halloween costumes and unethical beadwork. While non-Native businesses are appropriating and copying Indigenous culture, the Navajo Nation continues to suffer tremendously from COVID-19 cases. According to VICE, “About 30-40% of residents don’t have access to running water, which makes following CDC guidelines like handwashing almost impossible.” The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 cases in the U.S, as of July 18th. There have been almost 8,593 cases and 422 deaths. The production and appropriation of Native beading and jewelry are not only detrimental but also promote the modernization of colonization and gentrification.
So, what can you do? You can research and educate yourself and make sure you don’t buy something that is trendy or popular because it could have cultural significance. You can keep and hold these businesses that are appropriating accountable. Instead of buying from large chain corporations by non-Natives, people should be supporting Indigenous artists and authentic jewelry like B.YELLOWTAIL, Orenda Tribe, and small businesses like Three Sisters By Emma-Love and Beadwork By Hema. You can support many locally-owned authentic Indigenous brands and artists at the Navajo-Hopi Relief Fund.
Written by writer Lauren Goulette