People love handicrafts, anything made lovingly with human hands instead of a machine. It is felt to be immensely superior. And it probably is! In Native American culture, there is much to covet. There are exquisitely wrought vases and bowls of all sizes and shapes decorated with emblems of the tribe, etched in the finest clay. There is jewelry to long for in the form of silver, onyx, and turquoise like the famous Navajo squash blossom necklaces. And there are woven items like area rugs and certain types of traditional garb.
So who let the sewing machine on the reservation? Who knows, but it has been there for a very long time along with all the normal modern conveniences. We are not talking about ready-made, store bought stuff that everyone has no matter where they are from, baring differences in climate. Native Americans wear what everyone else does in most parts of the country. We are talking about items for sale that recreate a lost culture or a contemporary one that is back on track.
When you think of traditional clothing, you may think of buckskin dresses complete with beads and fringe. There may be a fur-lined jacket thrown in for good measure for northern tribes. The animals are said to be trapped on the reservation land. That is a bit of a stereotype, although some of these items do appear now and then for ceremonial purposes or creature comfort. More likely is the traditional smock shirt, for example, that looks wonderful with local jewelry.
Beading is one of the glorious Indian arts, not only the embroidered kind, but the strung ones found in the wonderful necklaces made of shell heishi or small stone animals. If you have ever made a trip to Sedona, Arizona and have visited the tourist center there, you will find a wonderful specialty shop that stocks beads from the reservation, among other places. They will help you devise your own design or copy some of their own. You can enjoy unique hand-carved beads, metal beads, painted ceramic beads, and glass beads of all types.
Meanwhile, back to clothing. This is something that has become sensitive since the store, Urban Outfitters, did the taboo thing and offered a retail line of Native American styles. The problem was, the clothing was cheap, trashy, and culturally offensive. Need we say more?
Back to the sewing machine. The artisans who produce Native American products have all the latest gadgets to produce quality products for their own use or even the ubiquitous tourists. You can’t blame them for appreciating the Indian style. They are tasteful and true to the region unlike garb at Urban Outfitters. This is not the first time that an indigenous culture has been exploited. It happens around the world in many places. In the US, you expect better than faux uncouth Navajo products. Ralph Lauren comes out stronger with fashion that tips its hat to the old west, although he has been criticized for using colorful Native Americans as marketing props. Along these lines, Victoria Secret made a major booboo when model Karlie Kloss wore an Indian headdress with little else but a concho belt.
Pop culture will appropriate just about anything and perpetuate stereotypes of teepees, headdresses and feathers. How do you strip away this false front to get to the real items? It is unlikely that a precious garment used for ceremonies or rites will be on sale unless it is an historical item to go to a museum like the Heard in Phoenix, where it can be respected and admired. The sewing output on the reservation is practical, utilitarian, but also stylistically unique. It is not found everywhere, so when it is uncovered, it may be a treasure indeed.
So don’t be surprised that Native Americans have modern sewing machines with all the bells and whistles, not to mention computerization of stitches for perfect regulation of spacing and size. Anyone who fabricates a garment needs such a marvel. Take Yellowtail, a designer of note who lives on the Crow Reservation. She brings great authenticity to the world in a tasteful way by adapting the styles of her ancestors to the 21st century—most particularly the beadwork of her great grandmother. Everything has a special meaning and spirit. She is a real standout in a crass culture and a paragon to emulate.
There are others following in her footsteps like Patricia Michaels who lives in New Mexico and created a marvelous elk antler cape. This could be a new era for Native American fashion. Get those sewing machines oiled and ready for the next generation who wants to celebrate the past.