Saturday, February 21, 2015

Four Hundred Years And No Progress At All

Sometimes, I’m ashamed of every fragment of my DNA that is not identifiable as Cherokee.

This is one of those times.

On February 18 the London-based fashion company KTZ, designed by Marjan Pejoski revealed its ready to wear Fall line at New York Fashion Week. The problem with the 2015 Fall line designed by Marjan Pejoski is that Marjan Pejoski didn’t design any of it. 

Oh, you haven’t seen any headlines leading with ‘Famed Fashion House Plagiarizes Existing Designs’? Me neither. And the sad part, is that you’re not going to. Not unless mainstream-everywhere suddenly realizes that using other peoples’ cultures to add a ‘primitive touch’ to clothing, art, or, well, anything, is wrong.

Pejoski states - very proudly - in an interview with Milk Made

“-as a way of paying tribute to the country, to the land, and all the indigenous people, it was based on the Native Americans, after a lot of research obviously. With every collection I go through lots of troubles when I take different countries and places, and coming to America was something that I wanted to explore. I’ve always adored Native Americans and their culture since I was a kid and I always loved their flamboyancy and their furs and feathers and leathers, and it was just something that was almost very close to me to do.”

Huh. It’s almost as if Perjoski, like about 98% of mainstream hive-mind America, doesn’t understand that the term ‘Native Americans’ does not connote one massive universal culture, but rather it encompasses hundreds of individual entirely unique and entirely different cultures. Loved their flamboyancy? It’s like Perjoski thinks of the various clothing types, patterns, styles and colors used by the different tribes as daring fashion choices instead of what they are: Representations of religious figures, theories and symbols, of family heritage, history individual culture.

Pejoski says that his 2015 Fall line “-was based on the Native Americans, after a lot of research obviously.” and that it is “-a tribute to ‘the primal woman indigenous to this land,’ who evolves into a sexualized, empowered being.”

With claims like those, I’m a tad confused as to why Union Army kepis and military style coats and braiding were used in the line as both accessories and designs. I wonder if Pejoski meant for them to somehow honor the thousands of unknown and unnamed women captured, raped, traded and sold by soldiers during the Indian Wars, which took place pretty much from the moment that settlers arrived until (officially) 1890, though armed conflicts continued sporadically until the 1920s. Is that what he intended to honor?

But let us set aside my confusion over what Pejoski states that he wanted to say, and what he did say, with this clothing line, and let us, instead, focus on this single, simplistic declaration by Pejoski during his Milk Made interview:“-we do a lot of custom-made things—every detail you see is everything we developed in house, the whole thing.”

If every detail you see in Pejoski’s line is developed in house - the whole thing - then how, pray tell, did the family beadwork designs of Bethany Yellowtail’s ancestors end up on a dress in his runway show? Below is a side-by-side of the dresses for comparison. On the left is Yellowtail’s Apsaalooke Night dress (2014) which is based on beadwork from her great-grandmother’s collection. On the right is the dress from the 2015 KTZ line.

If you’re looking at the two dresses and thinking “What is she talking about? So they both have triangles and squares?” bear with me. The issue here isn’t about whether or not the mass public can see or understand the importance of Yellowtail’s designs. The issue is that the designs are sacred to Yellowtail, a Crow/Northern Cheyenne and they are sacred to all Crow people. It’s also a portrayal of her own great-grandmother’s beadwork.

The matching silhouettes and lengths of the dresses aside, you don’t just artistically arrange some shapes and accidentally recreate a generations-old pattern of beadwork. Pejoski took a historically, culturally, important - and for Yellowtail, an incredibly personal - beadwork design, loosened it and called it his own creation. Pejoski’s line is not ‘inspired by’ the designs, color, and forms of American Indians, it’s a twisted amalgamation of blatantly copied designs, constructed with absolutely no consideration for the multiple cultures he was pillaging and bastardizing.

Here is another glaring example of Pejoski’s theft of pre-existing cultural designs. In this case, Lakota skinners who have been ripped off.

The greatest tragedy of this fashion conflict is not even the gross affronts committed by Pejoski himself. People do stupid things. Artistic people of position and means often do incredibly stupid things. The greatest tragedy of this debacle is that the mainstream media doesn’t even know it’s going on. And any of the larger mainstream outlets who have noticed what’s happening, are choosing to very politically stay mum about it, rather than openly making a stand one way or the other.

Despite that online entities like Beyond Buckskin and Indian Country among others, are coming out in support of Bethany Yellowtail, and are denouncing the appropriations of traditional American Indian designs, the mainstream media hasn’t noticed, or if they have noticed, they’ve remained conspicuously silent about it.

A simple Google under KTZ 2015 Fashion Week reveals pages of articles touting Pejoski’s fall lineup as a triumph, a bold, primally satisfying group that any woman would want to wear. It is only Native-based sites, or more outspoken, less mainstream sites who have made any mention of the ongoing conflict, and then it’s often in a passing article, a note of interest that’s quickly set aside.

People who aren’t associated with any specific American Indian tribe (or any other indigenous peoples) fail to see what the big deal is, and in this world of social media and distanced opinions, most of them opt to shrug and suggest that it’s not, in fact a big deal and that those of us who have grievances should just get over it, already.

For the last four hundred years the indigenous peoples of America have been slaughtered, demeaned, shoved aside, cheated out of their own cultures, and disregarded in general, and all along the way they’re been told to get over it.

Now, those who have managed to survive repeated assaults by the American army, who have managed to surpass the excruciating poverty and impediments forced upon them by the United States government, those individuals like Bethany Yellowtail who have succeeded in becoming forces within their own industries are effectively still being told to get over it when a non-Native person like Marjan Pejoski decides to loot the ancestral coffers of cultures not their own.

Four hundred years of history, and mainstream America still cannot grasp the concept that you don’t have a right to claim something just because you like it.