Delina White’s designs use traditional Ojibwe beadwork to express modern-day ideas. “Our skirts are like canvases, or platforms, that say different things about our beliefs and we use traditional designs and materials to make them,” says White, who grew up on the Leech Lake reservation near Bemidji and lives there today. Her skirts are part of her larger clothing and accessories line, called I Am Anishinaabe.
Past collections have tackled issues like deforestation, missing and murdered indigenous women, and the environment. “[Design] is our way of working with those issues,” says White.
But White’s designs are statement pieces in more ways than one. In addition to sending social and political messages, her clothing and accessories have a vibrant, stunning beauty and can be enjoyed simply as wearable works of art.
White, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, learned traditional beadwork from her grandmother when she was 6 years old. “My grandmother had these little coffee tins full of beads and I would string them according to patterns and play with them,” says White.
The playing turned to making earrings and barrettes, and, later, moccasins and bags. Eventually she began making apparel, and her two daughters, Lavender and Sage, joined her. “My mom used to make my pow wow attire, so we started making traditional ribbon skirts because we use those in ceremonies,” says White, who as a jingle dancer travels throughout the United States and Canada for pow wows and competitions.
In 2014, she was awarded a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board that she and her daughters used to create 15 traditional Great Lakes woodland-style skirts. “We wanted to do this to show pride in our culture and revitalize the wearing of traditional-style skirts in everyday settings — in grocery stores, in going to school, in going to work.”
White’s spring collection (her daughters have pivoted toward other pursuits) will debut at the Walker Art Center on June 13. It celebrates American Indian LGBTQ culture and coincides with the Twin Cities Pride Festival. All the models will be indigenous and queer. “I just think the two-spirit culture is a beautiful culture and I have a lot of two-spirits in my life,” says White.
After the show, the designs will be for sale on her website — if they don’t get purchased straight off the model, which has happened.
The Walker show isn’t White’s only big milestone this year. She recently collaborated with well-known Swedish designer Gudrun Sjoden; those pieces will be part of Sjoden’s fall 2019 collection.
As White’s designs reach more people and gain wider acclaim, she hopes they spread beauty and an appreciation for difference. “When we talk about racism and diversity, for me, tolerance is not good enough. I would not want to know that somebody is tolerating me. I want it to go further: I want it to be appreciation,” she says. “Appreciation for individual gifts, that is what makes the world beautiful.”