BELCOURT, 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.
But this time, her models were teenagers from the area, a few of them Metcalfe’s cousins.
This time, her models were nervous.
“These 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 family.”
This area, marked by rolling hills and yellow fields near the Canadian border, is no fashion hotspot. But to Metcalfe, it’s home.
Sporting 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.
Screenprinted tees with political messages. Silk scarves with hand-painted designs. Dangling earrings made of porcupine quills.
“Every 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.”
As 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 magazine.
But 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.
“I 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.”
So 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.
On 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.
Both carried clipboards.
“We 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.
A first for Native fashion
Paint 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.
Metcalfe and her mother filled the store’s old foundation with black dirt, hauled from another lot. They planted raspberry bushes. Tomatoes, peppers, cilantro.
"We're going to have taco Tuesdays," she said, laughing.
In 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.
“I’m 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.”
Growing 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.
But 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.
“You 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.”
While 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 intricate designs.
“These are hand-painted,” Metcalfe said, turning the thin, tough earring in the light. “She uses the world’s tiniest paintbrush.”
Beyond 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.
On 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 readers.
“But at the time, there wasn’t a place to easily access Native-made fashion items,” Metcalfe said. “So I decided to make that space.”
Traditions and symbolism
In 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.
“I 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.
“They don’t know what it means, what it symbolizes.”
The 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.
“I never thought I’d see them on young people,” said Azure, who goes by Judy. “It just makes me proud.”
Metcalfe 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 together.
“By working together, we can share costs, and we can cause a bigger ruckus.”
Today, 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.”
Amari started at age 5. Her upcoming collection is inspired by North Dakota’s wildflowers.
No place like home
Talking about the Turtle Mountain region, Metcalfe’s eyes crinkle, her laughter cascading like a woodwind.
“The 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 trees.
“Flakes of pink leathery birch,” one of her poems begins, “twirl in soft gusts.”
Metcalfe 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 miscarriage.
“Circles 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.”
Later, she added: “I think that’s why I work so well with artists, because I know how personal art is.”
Backstage 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.
Each 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.
One by one, they strode into the bright lights.