Native American Art
Counting Coup: Fashion and the Field Museum
APSÁALOOKE FASHION DESIGNER BETHANY YELLOWTAIL HAS A DEEP-ROOTED CONNECTION WITH HER HERITAGE.
Apsáalooke fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail has a deep-rooted connection with her heritage.
I am in Chicago, awaiting my Lyft to take me to meet up with Bethany Yellowtail. We are in the early stages of a collaborative project that entails an exhibition of historic and contemporary Native art at the world famous Field Museum. I can’t help but feel a little elated; though Yellowtail is my
Apsáalooke sister and I see her a couple times a year, it is always a delight to spend time with her. She has a powerful, positive vibe that touches everyone around her; she moves people in beautiful ways. After a few minutes in her presence it is easy to understand why she is so successful. She will tell you it wasn’t easy, and she attributes much of her strength and commitment to her close, loving bond with her family and friends. In spending time with her, one learns very quickly that Yellowtail is a passionate soul, a creative genius and marvelously generous in sharing all of her gifts. She makes it clear that she is in a partnership with her longtime friend and ally Kim Meraz, an equally brilliant and badass, sophisticated business woman. Together, these two women have created a brand that not only exemplifies a high-level fashion and art brand, but also an ethically driven effort to do good things for Indigenous people. The both of us have come a long way from being little girls on the Crow reservation— we are now women and about to embark on a very important and serious venture that has the potential to positively influence people from all walks of life. I’m staring into my coffee cup now roused by the Lyft driver’s honk. I climb in in nervous anticipation of our collaboration with the University of Chicago and the Field Museum.
Yellowtail is an agent of positive change, to say the least. At the young age of 30, she has already made quite
an impression, with an enormously successful fashion house and collective, appearances in Vogue, the MTV Video Music Awards and a feature on PBS’ Indie Lens Storycast titled ALTERNATIVE. All of this well-deserved attention is a result of her fabulously successful fashion house and Native art collective, B.yellowtail.
The B.yellowtail brand came onto the scene in 2015—a smart, sophisticated and sexy ready-to-wear line of apparel designed by Yellowtail herself. Now with 12 seasons and more than 70 designs under her belt, it’s clear that the only direction for Yellowtail and her brand to go from here is up. Yellowtail comes from Apsáalooke and Cheyenne families, grew up on the Crow reservation in Wyola, Montana, attended the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and worked for BCBGMAXAZRIA. She earned her chops quickly in the fashion industry by creatively and efficiently navigating the complex landscape, known to be brutal for young and emerging designers. However, despite the challenges Yellowtail completed her schooling and moved on to design her own line of apparel. Her life and heritage make her a natural in designing ready-to-wear clothing for the kind of people who appreciate the principles involved in creating distinctive fashion. In fact, many of the people who collect Yellowtail’s pieces are art curators, celebrities,
“We cup the smoke to our heads and hearts, still reeling over the connections we made, the work we have ahead, and the blessed destiny of our Indigenous people.”
politicians, activists, doctors and lawyers. People with distinguished concentrations interested in cultivating a meaningful personal aesthetic, reflective of a refined taste in art, Indigenous matters and extraordinary fashion. It is known among her collectors that each and every one of Yellowtail’s designs is a deeply passionate and prayerful creative effort, intended to inspire and educate the public about cultural designs and art, Indigenous communities and Native worldview.
Day two of our Chicago visit is in the Field Museum anthropology collection, where we are spending time with the historic Apsáalooke (Crow) material. Yellowtail is seeking inspiration for her upcoming fashion collections and examining spaces for a film she is co-producing with Meraz. At dinner the night before, she talked about her vision for the year: the film, a massive Indigenous fashion show, more art, more community engagement, more everything. It seems that between the both of us, the idea of “counting coup” and “chief up” is as real as it gets. We vibe hard in understanding that it is time for us to fully represent our people, empower women, give Native people a voice, and of course, look damn good while we are doing it.
The collection space is one of the most protected rooms of the Field Museum. There is lots of security, no phone service and every imaginable historic artifact known to mankind within arm’s reach. Of course we (the Apsáalooke visitors), made sure we fasted, smudged, prayed and talked to our families before we entered the space, the way it is when we
visit sacred things made by those who are no longer with us. We are greeted by the collections manager and her people, photographer Adam Sings in the Timber (another famous Apsáalooke) and several others. Everyone is over the moon about Yellowtail’s visit, hoping she will breathe new life into some of the sleepy spaces dedicated to Native people. Every Native person that comes into contact with the Field brings the spirit of Indigenous innovation and agency, vital ingredients for a true revamp of the Native North American exhibition hall, a space that has been in stasis since the 1950s.
We begin our work by pulling war shirts, moccasins, belts, leggings and horse gear. The room is alive with laughter and tears; the ancestors are awakened by the sound of our language, laughter, touch and breath. Yellowtail is fully engaged. She is now in a space of quiet creative reflection and prayer. We gently linger over a perfect Apsáalooke war shirt; every bead is in place, the ermine looks as if it was tanned yesterday, the trade cloth is vivid and strong. I can’t help but notice Yellowtail gazing lovingly at a swath of lavender beads attached to the shoulder of the war shirt. She comments on the rare use of the lavender color, and that she’d spotted it on a cradleboard we’d spent time with earlier. I am thinking that perhaps the beads are like her, extraordinary, idiosyncratic and wonderfully vibrant. Much like Yellowtail, the lavender captures your attention and holds it, even when it is among many other spectacular brightly colored beads. The beads, like Yellowtail, compel you to reexamine your ideas of beauty, “tradition,” and “the rules.”
Later in the day, as we begin to wind down, we pull out a large incised parfleche luggage piece. The mass of hide is folded inward and tied together to contain various family belongings. The case is incredibly old, with a possible creation date from the late 18th century. The buffalo hide, though it is simple, was incised (or etched at the surface with various sharp tools) in a way that transformed the large utilitarian piece into a grand work of art. The case was so stunning that Yellowtail spent a great deal of time with it, opening and closing it, caressing it, speaking to it and photographing it—they are connected now. She explained to me later that the case reminded her of how incredibly talented and creative our people are. Even with limited material we still manage to make something spectacular and useful, and that gave her hope. We visited for some time about the parfleche case. In our exchange she shared that in making this connection with such a formidable article, she recognized the resilience and creativity
of the ancestors within herself. As the day comes to a close, we tell our ancestors we will see them again (there is no goodbye in the Apsáalooke language). With our imagination roused and our hearts a little heavy for leaving our ancestors behind, we take leave. We end the day by smudging off together in front of the massive neoclassical Grecian temple. We cup the smoke to our heads and hearts, still reeling over the connections we made, the work we have ahead and the blessed destiny of our Indigenous people.
This is only chapter one—in March 2020 the Field Museum and the University of Chicago will open a grand exhibition of contemporary and historic art from the Apsáalooke and the Northern Plains. As one of the primary contributors, collaborators and curators, Yellowtail will bring the exhibition to a whole new level. We invite you to join us at the grand opening of the exhibition in Chicago, and as always, we invite you to join us for our annual Crow Fair celebration in Crow Agency, Montana, on the third weekend of August. Aho.