Metcalfe, right, her student employee Dillan
Martin take a picture of Lexius Davis after she
got dressed and ready to walk in the Beyond
Buckskin fashion show in Belcourt, N.D.
N.D. — Jessica Metcalfe paced the stage in high heels,
waiting while they adjusted the lights for a fashion
show in an unlikely spot: a reservation in rural North
Dakota. Metcalfe, 36, has highlighted Native
American-made designs with runway shows in New York
City, Phoenix, Santa Fe — big-budget affairs with
high-end looks and professional models.
this time, her models were teenagers from the area, a
few of them Metcalfe’s cousins.
time, her models were nervous.
are all reserved for us," she told two of the young
women, pointing to the first few rows of seats in the
empty auditorium. "This will be all friends and
area, marked by rolling hills and yellow fields near the
Canadian border, is no fashion hotspot. But to Metcalfe,
big, beaded earrings and a Ph.D., Metcalfe is helping
lead a national movement to buy authentic, Native
American-made fashion. On her website, Beyond Buckskin,
she interviews designers, fighting the stereotype that
Native fashion is all feathers and fringe. She calls out
companies for ripping off Native designs and celebrities
for donning headdresses. (A typical post: "20 Signs
You’re a ‘Native American-Inspired’ Hot
Mess.") She offers an alternative, shipping
Native-made works to customers around the world.
tees with political messages. Silk scarves with
hand-painted designs. Dangling earrings made of
time someone buys earrings or a bracelet they are
actively supporting the continuance of this ancient,
beautiful artistic practice," said Metcalfe, a
member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
"And I think that’s so cool."
tribal fashion again grew trendy, her profile rose. She
wrote and consulted for Native Fashion Now, an
exhibition showing at the Smithsonian’s National
Museum of the American Indian in New York City. This
month, she appears in the September issue of Glamour
rather than setting up shop in a big city, Metcalfe
moved in 2012 to Gardena, N.D., to a house a block from
her grandmother, bringing the city’s population to 31.
Or was it 29? "I’ll have to sit down and count
everybody," she laughed.
guarantee you, Jessica could move to Santa Fe, to
Oakland, to Los Angeles — name the top, influential
cities in the country — and she could exceed her
current revenue, growing way beyond what she’s
doing," said Erik Brodt, co-owner of Ginew, a
premium denim company based in Portland, Ore. "But
she’s committed to this community."
when Metcalfe decided to open a store, a
brick-and-mortar version of her online shop, she picked
Belcourt, N.D., home of Turtle Mountain’s tribal
offices. Pop. 2,100.
a recent afternoon, mannequins stood in front of the
shop, in a 1970s shopping center, wearing graphic tees.
Inside, her two employees gathered outfits for the
fashion show — part of Turtle Mountain Days, a
weeklong festival with a teen dance, a parade, a powwow.
Tyra Jerome, 18, who starts college this fall, was in
charge of wrangling the models. Dillan Martin, 16, an
aspiring filmmaker, photographed them in their looks,
beside birch trees.
want to have opportunities for our youth," Metcalfe
said. Jobs for teens in the area are limited, she noted:
the gas station or the grocery store.
STORY CAN END HERE)
FIRST FOR NATIVE FASHION
peels from an abandoned farmhouse in Gardena, a city
with gravel roads southwest of the reservation. Rust
spreads across the swing set in the park. But in the
town’s center, where the general store once stood, a
community garden grows.
and her mother filled the store’s old foundation with
black dirt, hauled from another lot. They planted
raspberry bushes. Tomatoes, peppers, cilantro.
2012, Metcalfe left her job as a visiting professor at
Arizona State University to live here, steps from her
mother, aunt and grandmother — the three women who
raised her. She built her online shop from the office of
her one-story house. But first, she had to persuade city
officials to put up street signs.
going to be doing some shipping and receiving," she
remembered telling them, "so we’re going to need
street signs. It was a big to-do."
up in nearby Dunseith, Metcalfe learned from her
grandmother — a "stabilizing force" in her
life — the value of dressing well, despite being poor,
"of always making sure your clothes were
ironed." Her grandmother, Mae, loved when little
Jessica wore skirts and dresses. She urged her
granddaughter to grow her hair, Metcalfe said, touching
her long, jet-black mane.
it was also a time of racial tension, Metcalfe added. So
as a teenager, she didn’t wear clothes or jewelry that
would emphasize her Ojibwe heritage.
learn to downplay your Indian-ness," she said.
"If you’re going to wear these big, clearly
Native American earrings, people are going to treat you
a little differently."
researching the history of Native high fashion, Metcalfe
started sporting Native necklaces and earrings daily.
Her collection hangs from stands in her bedroom and
fills boxes on her dresser: long black earrings made of
jet. Colorful hoops wrapped in porcupine quills that
were plucked and cleaned by hand. Rawhide earrings with
are hand-painted," Metcalfe said, turning the thin,
tough earring in the light. "She uses the world’s
Buckskin started as a place for Metcalfe to tell such
stories. Working on her doctorate at the University of
Arizona, Metcalfe interviewed Native designers, who
"were sharing their personal stories, handing over
their pictures," she said. It didn’t seem right
that just a few academics would ever see them. So in
2009, she launched the blog.
it, Metcalfe called out Etsy for allowing makers who
clone Native American patterns. She blasted Urban
Outfitters for labeling its items "Navajo."
She warned festivalgoers to refrain from wearing feather
headdresses. Buy authentic pieces, Metcalfe urged her
at the time, there wasn’t a place to easily access
Native-made fashion items," Metcalfe said. "So
I decided to make that space."
STORY CAN END HERE)
the dressing room, before the fashion show began, a
dozen teenage girls pulled on ribbon skirts in colorful
prints, sewn by a local elder. They helped one another
tie chokers, made with bone beads by an Ojibwe artist.
They applied more eye shadow.
like how these clothes embrace the Native
American-ness," said Syann Golus, 19, her hair in
long, tight braids. Clothes from big brands have
feathers, "but I don’t think they’re coming
from a Native American, so it’s not the same thing.
don’t know what it means, what it symbolizes."
bottom of a ribbon skirt, Metcalfe explained, touches
the ground, helping the woman wearing it connect with
the Earth’s medicine. Margaret Kakenowash Azure, 62,
has long sewn the skirts for relatives, to be worn on
special occasions: powwows, sun dances, sweat lodges.
But for Beyond Buckskin, Azure stitches more casual
versions, mixing colors and textures in the rows of
ribbons. They sell for $250.
never thought I’d see them on young people," said
Azure, who goes by Judy. "It just makes me
started the shop with purses, jewelry and clothing from
11 artists, setting up a drop-ship system that required
no inventory. Customers placed orders on the site, and
Metcalfe simply passed them along. Profit went back into
the business, into the designers. She gave artists
little loans, paid back with new works. Two hundred
dollars to buy a deerhide, $500 to create a new
collection for a fashion show. "To break into the
fashion industry, "you have to have a lot of money
and a lot of connections," Metcalfe told a crowd in
June. "And we have neither. So instead, we work
working together, we can share costs, and we can cause a
Metcalfe partners with 40 artists from across the
country and Canada. They include Azure’s 12-year-old
granddaughter, Amari. In a kitchen full of fabrics,
beads and rickrack, Azure has taught her grandchildren
the traditions of her elders: "They start beading
when they’re old enough to hold a needle."
started at age 5. Her upcoming collection is inspired by
North Dakota’s wildflowers.
PLACE LIKE HOME
about the Turtle Mountain region, Metcalfe’s eyes
crinkle, her laughter cascading like a woodwind.
smell in the summertime, it’s sweet," she says.
"The blades of grass are a bit translucent, so they
glow whenever the sun hits in a certain way." She
has tried to capture, in her paintings, the vibrant
yellow of the fields, the neon pink of the blossoming
of pink leathery birch," one of her poems begins,
"twirl in soft gusts."
has long used art to process her world, this place.
Since her grandmother’s death in May, she’s spent
time most evenings beading. With a needle, she picks up
four or five delicate beads, stringing them through,
circling the center to create a turtle. Those circles
steadied her three years ago, too, following a
and circles and circles. I don’t even know how many
turtles I made," Metcalfe said, rubbing one of the
turtle-shaped medallions in her palm. "I love the
idea of taking something sad and processing that energy
and turning it into something beautiful."
she added: "I think that’s why I work so well
with artists, because I know how personal art is."
at the fashion show, Metcalfe squinted out at the crowd
that had gathered in the tribal college’s auditorium.
Her sister was out there, somewhere, but it was hard to
spot her. Fathers sat ready, their cellphones cocked. In
the front row, young girls crossed their legs, leaning
forward, like celebrities at New York Fashion Week. As
the music began, the models lined up.
of the teenagers, before going onstage, got a moment
with Metcalfe. She adjusted their skirts, smoothed their
hair. She told them they were beautiful. Then she gently
pushed them forward.
by one, they strode into the bright lights.