Native Fashion Now Volume 40.1

DRESS, HEADPIECE AND CAPE by Orlando Dugi (Diné) of paint, silk, organza, feathers, beads, and twenty-four karat gold; porcupine quills and feathers; feathers, beads and silver, Desert Heat Collection, 2012. Model: Louisa Belian. Photograph by Thosh Collins.

THE MESSENGER (THE OWL) CAPE AND HEADPIECE by Margaret Roach Wheeler of silk/wool yarn, metal, silver, glass beads, and peacock feathers, Mohatan Collection, 2014. Photograph by Greg Hall.

Fashion exists along an interesting spectrum—that of building personal and public identity. It is the overarching narrative, the sizzling, morphing cinematic of the mind’s eye that is constantly reinventing itself. While fashion as a concept exists universally, the institution’s birthplace, and the subsequent structure that was created from those beginnings, could fairly be ascribed to Paris. As such, fashion has been a European-dominated organism for most of its modern existence.

      As a sculptor of identity, then, it is perhaps most apropos that a people who have struggled with retaining and defining their identity have become the most recent insurgents within what has for the last century been a Western cultural enterprise. Represented in the exhibition “Native Fashion Now”, originating at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, and ending this September at New York’s National Museum of the American Indian, the work of sixty-seven Native American artists and designers reassesses the topic of fashion, and introduces exciting possibilities towards where it is traveling.

The exhibition is better viewed through the lens of perspective and context to achieve maximum impact. Fashion is ravenous, devouring and subsuming participants in a high stakes competition for fame, recognition and income. But the greatest fashion designers have always been subversives—Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, and Issey Miyake shared a mindset that flouted rules and sensibility to change how the game was played. In doing so, they shifted the boundaries of the masculine and feminine.

What modern Native fashion designers are doing, then, is more clear within this setting. Seen not as minor titillations in a leviathan oeuvre, but as poking holes and proffering jests that subtly undermine the status quo, these designers are introducing a radical concept, bringing the legitimacy of non-European aesthetics into the world of fashion. The exhibit, in covering a diverse range of work, examined the many directions from which this change can emanate. Take, for example, the striking ensemble Desert Heat by Orlando Dugi (Diné).

In this dress, Dugi has carefully aligned the shock value of most contemporary fashion with a cultural aesthetic grounded in his own tradition. Desert Heat’s long, shimmering dress, dyed shibori-style with ardent crimsons, blotches of black and coronas of orange, is topped with a mantle of feathers, draped over the wearer’s shoulders and locked around the throat with a beadwork collar. A headdress of porcupine quills and feathers surmounts the whole like a wild woman’s crown. All of these elements contain traces of Dugi’s native world, and to those in the know it is hard not to see his outfit for what it is—a ferociously graceful costume that transforms its wearer into a bird of prey. Paying homage to the dancer’s ensembles of Native American tribal rituals, it also respects the animals of the earth. Indeed, although not indigenous to North America, Dugi’s piece resembles the snake-slaying secretary bird of Africa.

POSTMODERN BOA of stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint, and feathers, by David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Picuris Pueblo/Diné), 2009. Model: Tazbah Gaussoin. Photograph by David Gaussoin; courtesy of Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

      While Western contemporary fashion appears to be a monolithic construct of fashion labels and major design firms, contributors to it have differing ideas of what fashion actually is. From those who consider themselves artists rather than fashion designers, to those who see no distinction between the two, and finally people who firmly see themselves as couturiers, the term, like art itself, is subject to interpretation. Native artists Wayne Nez and David Gaussoin (Picuris Pueblo/Diné) work in a variety of media, and their contribution to the exhibition is Postmodern Boa, a serpentine rising spiral of enameled steel festooned with feathers.

As an item of adornment both sleek and slinky, coquettishly hiding its wearer yet revealing glimpses through dark crimson, Postmodern Boa evokes an aura of pomp and mystique. Yet despite its allure, the origins of this crafted object are deeper. The community-focused nature of Native culture was what brought about its creation. The Gaussoin brothers had been collaborating for a series of fashion show fundraisers, with the aim of raising money for a nonprofit that enabled Native American youth to attend the Santa Fe Opera. “These early fashion shows took place in a night club. I think that idea of opera and night club together kind of explains that piece,” Wayne Nez recalls.

These hidden roots, which despite being unknown to the outside observer exist regardless, are an integral aspect of Native fashion. The undercurrents of family, tradition and community are present in many of the works displayed in the exhibition. Niio Perkins’s (Akwesasne Mohawk) pièce-de-résistance, a blue cotton and velvet dress with cuffs, collar and belt decorated with intricate beadwork, in the traditional Woodlands Indian style, is demure, understated and attractive. Its modest demeanor, in comparison to more contemporary styles, belies the lush embellishment of vines, flowers and leaves, vivid against a stark black background. Two white birds resembling doves, accented with small pearls, meet in the middle of her waistband, their green beaks almost touching. It is a symbol of both beauty and peace.

EMMA ENSEMBLE by Niio Perkins (Akwesasne Mohawk) of cotton, velvet, glass beads, and metal pins, 2010. Photograph by Ornament.

      All made by hand, Perkins’s ensemble could not have manifested without the influence and inspiration of her mother, Elizabeth. Perkins’s development as an artisan is strongly connected to the artistic environment of both family and tribal culture. “I learned to bead as a child in the lap of my mother,” she recollects. “She is a phenomenal seamstress and designer of traditional clothing in her own right. I was a needy baby; she had to hold me as she used the sewing machine. When I started to get in the way, she gave me a bowl of beads and taught me a few techniques to occupy my little hands. I grew up among families who beaded to supplement their income. It has always felt like a natural thing to do.”

A jacket embellished by Thomas Haukass (Sicangu Lakota) for his friend Kenneth Williams Jr. (Northern Arapaho/Seneca) is a statement on the importance of connections and relationships for Native Americans. While the cream-colored linen blazer is European in design and origin, it has been transformed into a canvas for ledger designs, an open book, as it were, that takes a quintessential Native expression of preserving identity in the face of assimilation and oppression. Each warrior on the jacket is a hero, a doer of mighty deeds and a collector of titles. The term “counting coup”, after the Native warrior tradition of striking an opponent with a coupstick, speaks to the recognition, and recollection, of courage. For Haukass, this garment was his way of honoring the accomplishments of his fellow artist.

Sometimes the roots of something mighty come from a single seed. Louis Gong is of the Nooksack tribe, who share the Northwest Coast of Washington with other Coast Salish peoples. He is also French, Scot and Chinese, and this unique mix has led to exploring his own identity through art.

The prelude to this story came from junior high. Sometimes what we lack can give rise to passionate desire later in life, and so it was with Gong. “I grew up poor, so in seventh and eighth grade, when everyone was wearing Vans, I wanted to own some but couldn’t afford them,” he explains. “Fast forward twenty years, I saw a coworker wearing a pair of Vans, and it brought back that sense of wanting to buy one.” Gong went to the store to search through rows of shoes, but nothing he found seemed to represent him, and who he was. He bought a blank, white pair, brought them home, and took a sharpie to the sneakers with gusto. As his hand put ink to canvas, formline designs grew and flourished until Gong was left with an elaborately decorated piece of footwear that spoke to his unusual and complex heritage.

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      These sneakers would be the seed for Gong’s business, Eighth Generation, a vehicle for empowering Native artists. A farseeing philosophy guides his vision for the company. Seven generations is an intertribal concept for making decisions, a framework of sorts that says every action should be considered for its impact on the next seven generations. The name Eighth Generation imparts Gong’s personal touch, relating both to his Cantonese background, where the number ‘8’ phonetically sounds like the word prosperity, and his gesture of respect to the preceding generations that laid the foundation for where he stands today. 

Giving back to the community, both national and local, is natural for him. “I’ve heard it referred to as a culture tax,” he says. This understanding, that we are part of the fabric of a creative world, is shared by most Native artists, and is perhaps the greatest disjunct from the world of contemporary fashion, where famous names and big labels, with commercialized products that have unknown makers, stands today. The real scoop is not only how Native artists will change the outward aesthetics of the fashion industry but its processes as well. In that, “Native Fashion Now” is a portent of things to come.

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      Get Inspired!



Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. Earlier in the year he made the trip to New York, where he visited the National Museum of the American Indian, a peaceful space for insightful exhibitions on Native art. There he had the chance to see “Native Fashion Now”, an enterprising and innovative show organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. That viewing laid the foundation for an exploration into Native art as it relates to contemporary fashion. Speaking with Native artists, he was amazed at the stories that lay underneath the surface of each piece. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Glittering World Volume 38.4

Glittering World
Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family


BRACELET by Raymond C. Yazzie of silver, coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, fourteen karat gold, 6.03 x 2.54 centimeters, 2005. Collection of Mark and Martha Alexander. Photograph by Michael S. Waddell. Photographs courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Entering into the exhibition hall of “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” was a carefully cultivated experience. Guest curated by Lois Sherr Dubin, author of North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, assisted by associate curator Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo) and put together by assistant director of exhibitions and programs Peter Brill, “Glittering World” was an example of elements considerately placed to both educate and lead the viewer through a tightly woven visual narrative. The exhibition, not only a repository for some of the best contemporary Native American jewelry, was also a work of art in its own right.

      The Yazzie family is composed of sixth-generation silversmiths from Gallup, New Mexico. Born to Chee and Elsie Yazzie, both of whom worked with silver, nine of the twelve Yazzie children became jewelers. The recent exhibit featured jewelry from the whole family, with most of the focus on the work of two brothers, Raymond and Lee Yazzie. Raymond and Lee have created superb jewelry from their earliest years, some examples of which were on display. But most of all, their recent body of work was gloriously present for the public.

Taking place at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, in the noble facade of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, the exhibition was a sensorial journey. From the entrance, one was guided through two rooms—the first put into perspective Navajo and Indian symbolism, motifs and culture, while the second introduced the background of the artists and the environment in which they grew up. These portions of the exhibition set the tone for the rest, while subtly informing the viewer as to the visual alphabet behind what they were about to see.

BELT BUCKLE by Lee A. Yazzie of Lone Mountain turquoise, sterling silver, 6.03 centimeters long, 2000. Collection of Gene and Ann Waddell. Photograph by Kiyoshi Togashi.

Native American art is founded on an aesthetic and spiritual tradition where nearly everything represents some element of the world, of the spirits, and of nature. The exhibit explored several of these motifs, such as the Yei, or Holy People, and the vital essence of corn, the food crop which nourishes the Navajo. The Yei are divine beings that live within the mountain mists, and like many entities in the Native pantheon bear similarity to other spirits, such as the Hopi Katsinas. Some might call them different faces of the same thing, aspects of nature and life who play instrumental roles in how the world is governed and blessed. Panels were devoted to giving a brief and instructive summary of each symbol and paired with a piece of Navajo art that depicted it.

A side-room presented a taxonomy on the various types of turquoise. A piece of jewelry made by a member of the Yazzie family was partnered with a raw nugget of a specific type: Lone Mountain, Blue Gem, Lander Blue, New Lander Royal Web, Bisbee, Kingman. This overview of the different specimens of turquoise continued to weave the threads of the exhibition into one pattern, a larger picture which would transform the work in the final room from simply being pieces of jewelry into treasures.

In the last gallery, the exhibit seemed to open up into a world of awe. Jewelry laden with semiprecious stones dwelled in brightly lit display cases set into the floor and walls of the chamber, and each work a masterpiece. Festooned with colors that contrast and complement each other in coordination, layered and augmented to form graceful shapes and beautiful configurations, these bracelets, necklaces, rings and belt buckles are a living reflection of nature’s myriad incarnations.

BLUE CORN BRACELET by Lee A. Yazzie of Bisbee and Royal Web turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, opal, fourteen karat gold, 9.53 centimeters long, 1980. Collection of Joe and Cindy Tanner. Photograph by Kiyoshi Togashi.

      It is the intention behind every piece which distinguishes them from other contemporary American art jewelers. One can see that a narrative is being strongly woven, from start to finish, encapsulated neatly and entirely in materials that titillate the senses. A bracelet by Lee Yazzie entitled Blue Corn uses Bisbee and Royal Web turquoise, opal and coral with gold to subtly emulate one of the staples of the Navajo diet. It is an homage to Mother Nature and the blessing she bestows upon the people of the earth. The bracelet is at once reminiscent of an ear of corn, and yet also transcends it, like a physical manifestation of a perfect essence. The jeweled form seems somehow to loom larger than the sacred plant itself.

Other pieces are like paintings in miniature, stories rendered in abstract by carved stone and hand-wrought metal. Raymond Yazzie’s Blessings bracelet is a riotous panoply of colors and shapes, as if a great spirit’s pouch of wonders was upended and strewn across a crystal blue sky. However, upon closer inspection one saw figures adorned with jewelry, faces, stars interpreted by gold crosses, and other imagery, many from a vocabulary of symbols that are part of the tradition of Navajo art and spirituality. Others are inspired by the work of Hopi artist Dan Namingha’s abstract paintings of katsinas. Raymond has taken Namingha’s two-dimensional art and interpreted it his way, with a palette of stones. All of this is accomplished with impeccable technique which winds the whole ensemble into one tightly wrapped package, a gift for the wearer.

Lee’s specialty is silverwork, while Raymond’s preferred route of artistic expression is inlay. However, both jewelers are well-practiced in a broad range of techniques. Lee is known for having pioneered the Mosaic Turquoise technique where he takes multiple pieces of turquoise, and cuts them just so, such that one magnificent, unbroken expanse of stone is made from several separate parts. The method requires a careful eye, to see the pattern within the turquoise and to cut portions so that the veins that run within match up approximately. It also needs a steady hand to set each stone into the metal framework so that no seam can be seen.

BLESSINGS BRACELET by Raymond C. Yazzie of Water Web Kingman and other turquoise, black onyx, Australian opal, lapis lazuli, sugilite, coral, gaspeite, and fourteen karat gold, 2002-2003. This piece is made from four hundred eighty-five stones. Collection of Daniel Hidding. Photograph by Gregory R. Lucier, Windsong Studio, L.L.C.

Raymond’s use of color and tightly compacted stone inlay is his strong suite. A ring he crafted in 2012 presents all these elements in a richly detailed package. Drawing again from the wellspring of Navajo symbolism that forms the underpinnings of the Yazzies’ work, deep bluish slabs of turquoise are married to bold pieces of coral. Gold elements are interspersed throughout the rim of the ring, speckled with opal and sugilite. It is in the study of contrasts—the judicious arrangement of bright and dark, primary and secondary, with complex motifs arising from the miniature protrusions of semiprecious stones from the matrix—that such a satisfying and attractive ensemble is realized.

Both Lee and Raymond began silversmithing at a young age, and gained many accolades as they began their path through life as jewelry artists. Sometimes the early work is just as fascinating as their more recent pieces. A squash blossom necklace fabricated by Lee in 1975 takes a traditional Navajo form and tweaks it slightly, making something graceful, simple, elegant, and utterly modern. Native work has to adhere to certain rules and guidelines for it to resonate, for the path back to the old ways to be clear, for the form to be recognizable and for the symbolism to be true, but finding the middle way, where that traditional imagery is properly represented yet something new, fresh and alive is imbued within it, is magic. As Lee says of the piece, “I just wanted something a little more streamlined, a little bit more select. So I just combined my experience as a lapidarist with my traditional upbringing. That’s the way we progress. We’re taught something and then we learn new things and incorporate them.” The result is something both new and old.

The rest of the nine siblings who make jewelry were also given their due. Mary Marie Yazzie takes delicious, large chunks of turquoise and rings them with silver; one particularly unusual piece is a squash blossom necklace where raw, veined Lone Mountain turquoise ovalettes are overlaid on twin strands of silver beads, with an upended U or horseshoe shape of the ovalettes forming the flower-like pendant. Silver squash blossom buds peek out laterally from each ovalette. Cindy, Lillie, Lola, Marie, and Shirley Yazzie are all gifted in the art of making traditional silver beads, also known as “Navajo pearls” for how they resemble that gem from the ocean depths, and their work was shown as well.

The exhibition was accompanied by a fifteen minute video whose prelude is a repeating segment filming a train on the tracks, passing through Gallup. Once the video itself began, viewers were treated to an interview of Lee and Raymond, shepherded by the commentary of curator Lois Sherr Dubin and Vivian Arviso, a Navajo educator and former Chair of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts. In this cinematic complement, the artists are humanized and made real, rather than bodiless entities existing behind the curtain of their jewelry. Imperfect, striving to better themselves with each piece they create, and ultimately modest about their capabilities, the two brothers reveal the immense human effort required to create these seemingly flawless works of art.

Dubin herself sums up this family of craftspeople with her own characteristically insightful observation. “I do not see a difference between the way they live, the way they think and what they create. So, it’s all of a piece,” she explains. In this way, then, the jewelry of the Yazzies is a beautiful metaphor for the path of life tread by those who are makers.

“Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” showed from November 13, 2014 through January 10, 2016, and was accompanied by a catalogue, written by Lois Sherr Dubin. The Glittering World video can be seen on Youtube, at


Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. Last year he attended “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and found it an enchanting and thoughtfully produced experience. His coverage of the exhibition explores the work of the Yazzies, as well as expressing his appreciation for its presentation. In addition, he contributes his own perspective on the Tucson Gem & Mineral show. As Ornament’s resident reporter, he provides a zesty compilation of the latest craft News, where you can find out what is happening with art-to-wear in your local corner of the world.