Tuesday, May 24, 2022




In recent years, the impending threat of climate change has only grown more urgent, with even the U.N. warning of a global environmental crisis in 2040 as a consequence of the present refusal to decrease emissions. Meanwhile, the rising coronavirus pandemic is more directly impacting human lives worldwide, infecting, and often killing, scores of people with each passing day. What these two scourges have in common is, however, that they have sparked discussion about sustainable product consumption. In the case of the fashion industry, sustainable clothing has become a major topic, particularly in response to the inherent wastefulness of cheap, mass-produced fashion that is quickly discarded after use. Fortunately, one community has practiced sustainability since the dawn of time: indigenous fashion designers.

Sustainability and high regard for the environment are intrinsic to indigenous clothes-making, as contemporary indigenous artists craft with the same profound respect for nature embraced by their ancestors. Pre-colonized natives would make use of every material they could find, constructing garments that were passed down through countless generations and rebuilt as new pieces. Indigenous folk of the past were careful not to harvest or hunt excessively, and they heaped gratitude upon the land for providing them with all their necessities. Now, modern indigenous designers continue to take care of the environment, implementing such methods as using locally sourced hides and creating new pieces from old or fragmented fabric. There is a plethora of indigenous fashion businesses, all of which pay homage to a multitude of tribes and have different means of protecting the endangered environment. OXDX is a brand owned by Jared Yazzie of Diné descent that allows shoppers to use its screen-printing technology to repurpose old, unwanted clothing. Ginew’s long-lasting garments are the product of Ojibwe owner Eric Bodt obtaining carefully hunted and curated materials in increments and collaborating with small, domestic factories. Artist Lauren Good Day of the Arikara, Hidatsu, Blackfeet, and Plains Cree tribes fashions intricately-woven dresses and moccasins from used materials, and Urban Native Era is a company in which constant environmental research is done to ensure that they are operating in the most eco-friendly manner possible.

The most prominent indigenous fashion designer is Korina Emmerich, a former Project Runway contestant who is based in Brooklyn. Not only does she honor her Puyallup heritage and practice sustainability with her products, but now her latest creations help protect against the spread of coronavirus. Her colorful, traditionally-patterned masks, while not specifically designed for the pandemic, are nonetheless in high demand, and as such she sews hundreds of them. Additionally, Emmerich notes that masks bear a ceremonial significance denoting healing and recovery. In keeping with the indigenous environmentalist motif, the patterns on the masks symbolize the sacred relationship between humans and animals and are intended to bring attention to indigenous issues. As further support for her people, a fraction of Emmerich’s profits is donated to the Indigenous Kinship Collective, an organization aiding tribal communities and elders in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Indigenous solidarity is imperative during the pandemic, for the coronavirus has had the most devastating effects on Native American communities. For instance, the already small Navajo population of 173,667 people has suffered nearly 1,200 cases, 44 of which resulted in death. Many indigenous communities are also deprived of basic human resources like running water, not helped by the fact that tribal clinics have yet to receive the millions of dollars that Congress supposedly allocated to the Indian Health Service. Artistic expression is essential for Native American visibility, perpetually shining a light on the beauty and struggles of often-overlooked peoples. Indigenous artists’ talents are collectively a force for good, and these cultural masterpieces are themselves an act of resilience in the face of such insurmountable trials.