Native American Student Association discusses cultural appropriation in fashion

Ella Abbott

Members of Kent State’s Native American Student Association examined where the line falls between borrowing, and appropriating Wednesday evening in a panel discussion on Native American fashion designs.

Danielle Martin-Jensen, the president of Kent State’s NASA chapter, said the purpose of the panel is to engage the campus in the issues that affect the Native American community.

“I would want people to critically think about what qualifies or what defines and distinguishes cultural exchange, borrowing from cultures and appropriation from cultures,” Martin-Jensen said. “Because in my mind, I feel like they’re three very different things but that there may be places where there is overlap so I want to challenge myself to look at it.”

November is Native American Heritage Month, and the panel was the first of two complementary events happening this week.

On Thursday, NASA will host another discussion with Sterling Holy White Mountain, a fiction writer and essayist, who founded Rez Made, which according to their Facebook page, is a clothing company “for reservation people’s and their relations.” 

For Martin-Jensen, the problem of appropriation lies in the fashion industry using these cultures for profit without properly crediting those subject to appropriation.

“Appropriation often goes beyond stealing,” she said. “It goes beyond just that theft of, say, a design which to us might be sacred … into profiting off of it. And that’s what I see a lot of in the fashion industry in particular.”

The panel was moderated by Brian Baer, a professor of Russian translation, and consisted of fashion professionals, Sara Hume, an associate professor and curator of Kent State University Museum, and Tameka Ellington, a fashion school professor, as well as Native voices.

Georgi Hudson Smith, a board member of the Native American Indian and Veteran Center in Akron, is one such Native voice. She shared Martin-Jensen’s concern over profiting off of the culture.

“I feel that it crosses the line when the borrowing of those culturally significant items then takes away from the culture that you’re borrowing from,” Smith said. “Somehow, you, as the designer, now become the inventor of that particular item. You’re benefiting and profiting from it and the culture that you borrowed it from isn’t getting the credit.”

Ellington said cultural appropriation is harmful because it often involves taking something that is culturally significant or spiritual for a specific community and trivializing it.

“How can you be comfortable wearing something that is culturally significant to a particular culture?” she asked.

Ellington used cornrows as an example of something that is culturally significant to African Americans and Africans, but has become a modern trend.

“The cornrows have a history of being able to signify culture and to signify your status in the community,” Ellington said. “So, the cornrows, just like other Native items, becomes a sacred kind of thing that people just don’t get. They just think that it’s trendy.”

For fashion designers, aesthetic can often be prioritized over historical context.

“There’s a search for a certain aesthetic, there’s a search for design,” Hume said. “I think that there’s room to borrow the aesthetic of it and the use of it.”

Ellington said, as educators, it’s important to impress upon students and future designers the importance of learning about the history behind designs and patterns being used.

“In the fashion industry, there’s a long history of borrowing,” she said. “As professors in the industry, we teach our students that you really can’t design something without knowing the history and knowing what came first. So, designers do borrow from history.”

While creating a trend that includes Native designs may seem like offering exposure to a wider audience, the panel discussed that the danger is in the loss of significance.

“It’s putting it in the public eye for more people to be able to see,” Ellington said. “It’s not putting it in a positive way. It’s putting it in a stereotypical, fun, on-trendy kind of thing.”

Political significance of appropriating art, design and culture from marginalized groups is an important discussion for this topic.

“You could say the harm is that it’s the aestheticization of the political,” Baer said.

Historically, Baer said the romanticization of cultural imagery doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the advancement of marginalized people’s rights.

“In the late 19th century, when an Indian appears for the first time on the penny, was just years after Indian tribes were put on reservations,” Baer said. “So it almost suggests the opposite. That the political containment allowed for the symbolic appropriation.”

After time allotted for the audience to ask their own questions, the panel said that the power for change lies in the audience’s hands. Public outcry and boycotting of culturally insensitive products have historically been the thing that led to change.

“We, together, can make it better,” Smith said. “We can’t give up the hope that we can work together and we can be tolerant of each other’s differences.”

Ella Abbott is the fashion reporter. Contact her at [email protected].