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Time to Give Thanks: A Mini Guide to Traditional Native American Clothing and Accessories

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Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday: It's non-secular, easy to embrace, and often includes a good dose of shopping -- but Thanksgiving this year seems to have brought an "open season" on depictions and appropriations of Native American culture.

Instead of concentrating on the mis-guided outfits like Karlie Kloss in a "headdress" for Victoria's Secret and "Native" outfits as uniforms at Hooters, it's time to take a closer look at some items, clothing and accessories traditionally associated with Native culture by the media and the public.

Want to learn just a bit more about the Native communities in our country? Think of this a mini-refresher guide.

See also: - Bloggers Adrienne Keene and Dr. Jessica Metcalfe on Native Headdresses, Patterns, and "Aztec" Labels in Popular Fashion - Urban Outfitters Pulls Navajo Name from Collection

Anyone with even a passing interest in Native cultures can learn more about the diverse ways of Native American and First Nations people by looking to items made by Native peoples. We tracked down Native fashion blogger Dr. Jessica R. Metcalfe and Heard Museum curators to talk about the traditional wear and the meanings behind them. (Full disclosure, the author of this post is a former employee of the Heard Museum.)

"We try everyday to inspire others and to inspire our children and grandchildren to carry these things forward," says academic and Beyond Buckskin Native fashion blogger Dr. Jessica R. Metcalfe, Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

Headdresses & Feathers

"The headdress is still immensely significant to many Native communities," says Metcalfe. Headdresses of course are made of feathers, many of eagle feathers, which hold a special meaning.

"That's what makes it so important, are the feathers," says Marcus Monenerkit, Assistant Curator and Associate Registrar at the Heard Museum, referring to the headdress.

While feathers are important to many tribes, headdresses are often worn by leaders of tribes from the Plains states in everything from parades to special ceremonies. Its "safe to make the generalization that there's a special respect offered to those in the role," says Monenerkit, Comanche.

Similar to a US solider who wears his or her military uniform at a wedding, funeral or special event; a Native person wearing a headdress is typically someone in a special role or leadership position. Bottom line, to take away its specialness by trotting out a non-Native made "headdress" as a trend or "nod" to Thanksgiving is not a good idea.

While not all groups of Native peoples wear headdresses as a part of their culture, feathers-- especially Eagle feathers-- should be treated with respect.


Popular on T-shirts, earrings, and rear-view mirrors, so many people identify dreamcatchers as a whimsical symbol or Native cultures.

Dreamcatchers are traditionally made by Ojibwa (Chippewa) people in the Great Lakes region. However, today this item has become pan-indian, meaning people of many American tribes make Dreamcatchers or use it as a symbol.

While most Native cultures are extremely inclusive, the over commercialization of the dreamcatcher has meant that its become trendy and for many- completely removed from it Native origin.


The wild, over sexualized image of a Native woman in buckskin can be seen in far too many places. (I'm looking at you, Hooters.) Ironic, since traditionally speaking buckskin is fashioned into some pretty warm outfits used both everyday and for special occasions, too.

Long Apache buckskin dresses, for example, are a far cry from the "Pocahottie" image portrayed in the media. In current times, Apache girls who have reached puberty take part in a Sunrise ceremony, a traditional right of passage. During this ceremony, young girls who in previous weeks wore jeans and T-shirts will wear heavy buckskin dresses as part of this special, traditional ceremony. You'll also find Native artists and crafters who use continue to use buckskin in jewelry, purses and more form-fitting dresses made for more everyday wear.


Indigenous-made footwear has nearly always been a response to the environment. , Some forms of footwear are decorated or made in such a way to convey social status. In hot parts of Arizona, sandals made of Yucca are an example of such a response.

"Moccasins, mukluks, and sandals are incredibly comfortable. Many non-Native pioneers wore Native-made footwear because it was far more comfortable (and more suitable for the environment and elements here in America) than the clunky ill-fitting European shoes," says Metcalfe.

Glass beads started adorning leather footwear in the 16th century and trade for such items "exploded once the railroads come about." Says Jaclyn Roessel, Director of Education at the Heard Museum and creator of the "Grownup Navajo" blog.

Some moccasins can be worn everyday while others are worn for specific purposes. Moccasins with beading on the bottom, for example, are worn during ceremonies where the wearer is sitting for long periods of time.

Today, many hoop dancers and those who wear moccasins often, continually make changes to ensure comfort---like adding rubber to the soles. Roessel relates that gel inserts are popular additions to Navajo moccasins. Additionally, artists like Teri Greeves, Kiowa, make highly elaborate beaded moccasins and sneakers. Because many Native people don't wear moccasins everyday, wearing them during a special ceremony- like Kinaalda (the Navajo puberty ceremony for girls) often adds both a level of education and cultural intimacy.

On November 15, hundreds if not thousands of Native people (and some non Native people)"Rocked their Mocs" and wore Native American-made footwear "as a celebration of our identities, our cultural traditions, our beautiful aesthetic practices, and our Indigenous technologies," relates Metcalf. The hashtag "#rockyourmocs" exploded on Twitter and Instagram.


The way Native people traditionally and currently adorn themselves often helps them share who they are with others around them.

"As Navajo, turquoise is sacred," relates Roessel. "[We] wear it to honor our traditions and the origins of our people."

Turquoise jewelry is often passed down to daughters and nieces from others in the family. It's mined in the Southwest, is often named by the mine it came from and experts can often identify the mine by looking at the stone.

For example, Bisbee turquoise usually has a hard chocolate brown colored matrix. Some shades are more green than blue, and the stone is held in importance by many tribes who traditionally use it in jewelry, carvings and other adornments.

Once you understand the importance of turquoise to Native peoples, its easy to see why items like fake turquoise necklace Kloss wore on the Victoria's Secret runway don't really connect with the meaning of turquoise in Native communities.

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