- By Tamara Ikenberg
ROCKY BOY, Mont. — The Honor Our Legacy Fashion Show will likely have spectators wondering: Who was that masked model?
In its fourth year, the must-attend event that gets the Rocky Boy Reservation all glammed up to celebrate Indigenous style is being re-fashioned into a virtual experience themed “Mask Up While Being Indigenous.”
“One of the qualifications is that the models have to have masks in order to enter the show. The masks will match the outfits,” said show founder and organizer Rebekah Jarvey (Chippewa Cree, Blackfeet). “We can wear a mask and be fun and fashionable, and we can be prideful if you’re Indigenous and wearing an Indigenous mask. There are so many ways you can express your personality by wearing a mask.”
Viewers can catch the show on Friday, Sept. 25 at 5 p.m. MT via Jarvey’s YouTube channel and the Social Distance Powwow Facebook group. Social Distance Powwow founder Whitney Rencountre is the fashion show MC. The show will remain online for folks who can’t virtually attend the live show, and anyone else seeking a splash of Indigenous fashion.
Jarvey is Rocky Boy’s resident fashionista, and she’s totally tuned into the trends.
“In New York City, it was just Fashion Week and guess what a lot of the designers had?” Jarvey said. “They had their models wearing masks on the runway.”
Honor Our Legacy is a two-piece show, Jarvey explained. Part one is an all-access competition. Jarvey invited Native fashion lovers of all ages to share videos of themselves expressing their personal style. They will be judged in a series of categories and the winners will be announced during the show.
Part two is a designer showcase. Jarvey selected seven Native designers from the U.S. and Canada to present mini collections. Each designer chose five models to highlight five looks, and they were tasked with making a short video displaying their designs however they choose.
“The location and the music is up to them. They will send their video to me and I will send it to my videographer who will edit it into one big production,” Jarvey said. “I'm excited to see how all the designers execute their little personal fashion show.”
The roster of featured designers include Indigenous style icons, whose outfits have appeared in museum collections and major magazines like Teen Vogue.
In addition to Jarvey, the participating brands and designers include N_A_ Notions (Cheyenne, Arapaho), Designs by Della, (Apsáalooke Crow), Alex Starblanket (Ahtahkakoop First Nation), Plains Soul (Little Shell Chippewa), Elle B (Oneida), Kings & Queens (Ojibwe,Cree) and Aconav (Acoma Pueblo, Navajo).
Aconav’s latest couture collection is called Pe’Eh’Cha, which means Let it Rain in the Acoma Pueblo’s Keres language.
Designer Loren Aragon interpreted the theme through elegant dresses drenched with cool colors, organza and chiffon.
“The Pueblo is mostly known for believing in the rain and really relying on it for different aspects of our culture,” Aragon said. “The whole collection was based on the idea of rain, from the formation of the clouds, to the falling of the rain.”
In Aconav’s Honor Our Legacy video, Aragon will present atmospheric apparel inspired by Pe’Eh’Cha. Refreshingly ready-to-wear, the new pieces are far less formal, yet still dramatic and dewy.
“I really wanted to follow up with color combinations that reflected that same mood; the purples and grays and blues,” said Aragon, who runs Aconav with his wife and fellow designer Valentina (Navajo). “I’m still keeping the flowiness and elegance and incorporating some elements of the rain with sparkle fabric that will represent the dew or droplets.”
Both precipitation and pottery are essential to Acoma Pueblo culture, and the ready-to-wear collection unites them. Aragon’s original pottery-inspired prints may be absent from the couture collection, but they’ll come out to play in a big way during Friday’s show.
“I’ll be showing more pattern work with the pottery designs on bold print on different styles of dresses,” said Aragon, who comes from a family of artists who helped teach him an array of traditional styles and techniques.
“I’m fortunate to have known grandmothers who did a lot of pottery art, an uncle who does silversmithing, and a grandfather who does carving. I took a lot of those things and wanted to make them my own,” he said. “I stumbled upon fashion because my mom and my aunt have been seamstresses most of their lives and I really wanted to preserve the family tradition of garment making. My mother and aunt are known for doing traditional garments and I wanted to progress more into modern fashion and just see how that felt.”
His experimentation exploded into a hot property. In 2018, the brand scored two major coups. Phoenix Fashion Week declared the brand Couture Designer of the Year, and Aragon was commissioned to create an Acoma-inspired gown for the “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art” exhibition at Epcot Center in Orlando. And last year, an Aconav original appeared at the Tony Awards in New York City.
Aragon has participated in person at previous Honor Our Legacy Fashion Shows, and he’s grateful that Jarvey went on with the production instead of scrapping it due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Without the show-imposed deadline, he and Valentina would be even further behind schedule than they already are.
“The challenge this year with everything coming to a standstill, is it’s really pushed us back on releasing this collection. I really want to release it utilizing several different platforms,” Aragon said. “The virtual thing has just been happening everywhere and we’re no stranger to it. This is the first virtual show we’ve done with a mask theme. We will make masks to go with everything, so I'm excited.”
The motif of protection, unity and pride, coordinates perfectly with the brand and the couple’s core values.
“Aconav is founded on the matrilineal system of Acoma Pueblo and the Navajo; the power of women and evoking your own empowerment wearing our garments,” Aragon said. “We want you to find your own strength in what you wear.”
As an Apsáalooke Crow woman who learned sewing from her mother and grandmother, Della BigHair-Stump is entitled to her elk teeth.
“I was given the right and teachings to make our elk tooth dresses. They’re our traditional dress as Crow women. You lay each row of teeth one by one and make your way down after each row is attached,” said BigHair-Stump, founder and owner of Designs by Della. “Elk only have two ivory teeth and nowadays we use imitation elk teeth. Back then only real elk ivories were used. If you had a full dress of elk teeth, you were considered wealthy because your husband was a good hunter.”
A master elk tooth dressmaker, BIgHair-Stump has a Teton trade cloth and satin dress with fake elk teeth on display at Chicago’s Field Museum.
Faux elk teeth, traditional triangle, Pendleton fabric, hourglass applique designs, fresh pastel colors, and oodles of poufy, romantic tulle are all elements of BigHair-Stump’s inventive take on Crow chic.
“I usually incorporate elk teeth on skirts, and some of my dresses have imitations on them,” said BigHair-Stump. “I contemporize it. My (slogan) is ‘When Culture Meets Fashion.’”
The designer’s Honor Our Legacy video will virtually transport viewers to her Whistling Water boutique on the Crow Reservation in south central Montana. BigHair-Stump is going to keep it simple and let the masked models and fashions speak for themselves.
“I'm just gonna do it in front of my store, play music, and have the girls walk back and forth,” said BigHair-Stump, who has been part of Honor Our Legacy since the beginning. “That's it.”
Like all the Honor Our Legacy designers, she’s showing close to home this year. It’s a major change for BigHair-Stump, who normally jetsets to fashion shows all over the map. Last year, she journeyed to Paris for an International Indigenous Fashion Week show in the Eiffel Tower that even a fashion fan with a fear of heights could enjoy.
“We weren’t at the tippity top,” BigHair-Stump said. “It was on the first level.”
Designs by Della’s profile got pumped up in 2017 when a prom dress BigHair-Stump designed ended up in the pages of Teen Vogue.
The shimmering strapless red “Bella” dress, created for Choctaw teen Bella Aiukli Cornell, begins with a bodice printed with traditional triangular patterns, and ends in a full, lavish ballgown-style skirt.
In the Teen Vogue article, Cornell shared what wearing the dress meant to her and why she insisted on enlisting a Native designer.
“Red dresses are important to the Native community because it helps bring awareness to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (crisis) in Indian Country... Representation matters, especially when we're expressing ourselves through couture," Cornell said. "We have so many talented Native designers. It's important that they receive recognition for their efforts to preserve our culture.”
As she becomes a powerful force in the wearable art world, BigHair-Stump continues creating clothes with a conscience.
One of her most meaningful and stylish statements is a sleek form-fitting dress featuring a vintage photo of a Crow mother and baby under the word Apsáalooke, the Native name for the Crow Nation.
“It represents all Indigenous mothers. I myself am a mom to three, and now a grandma. Mothers are the backbone to every home,” she said. “In my clothing I always try to represent where I come from and who I am.”
The show must go on
Earlier this summer, Jarvey’s now famous “Night & Day” mask attracted the attention of fashion followers all over the world.
The vivid, three-dimensional mask united vintage Louis Vuitton with Indigenous details like yellow horsehair and beaded ropes, and was spotlighted in news outlets including Native News Online, Montana’s KTVQ Billings News and Valley News Live, and admired by fashion fans in Russia, New Zealand and beyond through Social Distance Powwow’s Facebook page.
The mask encapsulates everything about Jarvey and her passion for forward-looking fashion rooted in tradition.
Her funky follow-up to “Night & Day” will make its debut during Honor Our Legacy. The iridescent “Abalone Prism 2.0” mask is another piece of cultural eye candy, created with abalone, fire polish beads, rhinestones, Louis Vuitton material and hand-tanned elk hide.
“The Prism mask represents looking towards a brighter and beautiful future,” Jarvey explained.
Jarvey added that “Night & Day” will also make an appearance, paired with a custom-made complementary outfit.
Honor Our Legacy is a staple of the Rocky Boy Reservation’s annual Native American Week celebration, which usually takes place during the last week of September. Jarvey proposed adding a fashion show to the festivities four years ago.
“I wanted to share my love and passion for fashion with my community and introduce them to fashion and Indigenous designers and just give them something to dress up for. When you're dressed up it brings up your level of self confidence,” Jarvey said. “The fashion show is like my baby. Every year in September everybody that knows me knows I just dedicate my whole self to it.”
Still, this year’s long list of pandemic-induced limitations were almost enough to convince even an indomitable fashion force like Jarvey to cancel the show.
“Because of the time we’re in right now, I said to my family, ‘I’m not going to do the fashion show this year,’” she said. “Then I realized that the fashion show is bigger than me. It outgrew me and my co-partner. People look forward to it. People are excited about it. And there are the designers and models. This is their time to shine and show Indigenous beauty.”
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