As a young Ojibway girl, Fern Hoover wanted to see more people who looked like her on the runway.
At the age of 13, she walked that runway herself.
Being the “baby” in a group of older models, Fern felt the pressure of the blinding lights that illuminated her path down the narrow platform as she donned the artwork of Native designers.
It wasn’t until she got halfway down that she realized that she could handle the pressure and that all the people watching were there to support her and the artwork she wore.
“I love showing other people that no matter what your body type is, no matter what you look like, you’re beautiful no matter what. You shouldn’t let normal beauty standards get in the way of your dreams and passions,” says Fern, now 19 and focusing on her modeling career in Arizona.
At the very young age of 6, Fern was modeling at powwows and stumbled upon Trina Secody, selling her calendars where she wears traditional regalia.
At that moment, Fern told her mom she wanted to do the same thing as Trina, who soon became her mentor.
Trina taught Fern how to become a model and even taught her life lessons that Fern holds on to today: be thoughtful and caring; never judge a book by its cover.
In fashion, an industry that sets beauty standards for the world, there is a distinct lack of Indigenous representation.
However, in recent years, Indigenous communities have found ways of becoming more prominent with figures like model Quannah Chasinghorse or ‘Reservation Dogs’ actor D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai creating their own representation within an industry that carries restrictions on people who don’t look or dress a certain way.
Seeing Quannah at the 2021 MET Gala on social media, Fern was so shocked and excited that she felt the need to show her friends the Native representation at such a big event.
“A lot of the fashion shows I used to do when I was younger were super small. Only a few people would come, about 10 people and that was it. Now when you go to a Native American fashion show or artist show in general more people are there and more people come to watch the designers show off their artwork,” Fern says.
“It’s become an entirely new thing in the Native American community and I love that so much. I kinda changed with it, I kinda grew up with it.”
Many Indigenous fashion designers use their own personal styles while also incorporating aspects of their cultural traditions within their work to honor and celebrate.
“I really fell in love with it. I loved the artistic part of it. A lot of the different clothes you put on, they mean something different to everyone,” Fern says.
Every designer that Fern has worked with has cultural backgrounds integrated within their work. She really appreciates being part of showing off their work to an audience.
Gaining confidence has been the best part of modeling for 26-year-old Navajo Jaylene Yazzie.
“For me, it was more like pushing my comfort zone because growing up, when you’re around your cousins a lot and they’re male, you’re just growing up in a tomboy area,” Jaylene says. “It helped build my confidence in myself and wanting to try different things and different looks.”
From modeling for contemporary brands like Red Berry Woman to wearing alternative Native fashion from Randy Boogie to day-to-day comfortable clothing from OXDX, Jaylene finds it easier to be comfortable with her own body and try new outfit choices she may have never thought of before her modeling.
“I wanted to try different things ’cause there were so many different styles that I liked but it was more of not feeling confident or comfortable and that’s where modeling came in, it was being able to push my comfort zone and build the confidence in me and accept my body because, in the real world, models are tall and skinny, they have a certain facial structure and being able to feel that confidence and be in my own body is really nice,” Jaylene said.
She uses her clothing choices — like OXDX’s shirt, which says, “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” — as her own freedom of speech incorporated into her outfits.
Not only is the Native community beginning to make inroads in the modeling industry, Native Max Magazine founder Kelly Holmes took the opportunity to capture their stories and accomplishments.
When Kelly started her print magazine in 2012, she noticed there was a lack of representation of Native people in fashion as well as a scarce number of platforms to get their stories out to the general media.
Native Max Magazine describes itself as “a community of creatives on a mission to strengthen connections to culture and identity by inspiring and empowering our readers. Through a constellation of platforms and networks, we focus on expanding Indigenous talent across print, digital, online, events, and beyond.”
Kelly didn’t feel understood and a lot of the professionals she shared her idea with said it was a bad idea or it wouldn’t work.
She had no resources for how to start a magazine, so she attended seminars, workshops, and anything that could help her grow her business.
“I just want to showcase how talented, how beautiful, and how powerful our people are. We have always been very beautiful and very powerful but we have just been so abused all these years that it’s gotten to a point we were considered invisible,” Kelly says.
Since the rise of Native American fashion in media, Kelly appreciates that there are more opportunities for young Natives that weren’t available to her when she was starting her business.
Despite the typical physical appearances of models throughout the industry, the Native communities have been very supportive of the representation they see on the runway.
“I’ve worked out of state in different areas and there’s a couple times where we’re not fully recognized, because we’re not on a big screen, or in the White House, anything like that. They forget about us. When I was working in Kentucky, I had a few people tell me ‘Oh, you’re Native American?’ they had questioned me and thought I was Filipino,” Jaylene said.
It’s common for Native Americans to feel underrepresented on the runway or the big screen due to the misrepresentation of different cultures and traditions.
“When I started getting into modeling, I remember this kid learned that I was Native American and he said ‘Oh, you guys are still here? You guys still exist?’ And that struck me. Even though it was a remark, every single time after that, I always go back to that remark because that really is what people thought of us and I just thought ‘how absurd is that?’”
Kelly aims to use the magazine as a way of empowering readers, supporters and people who are touched by the magazine to keep moving forward.
“We’re storytellers,” she says.
Often overlooked in mainstream media, Native American fashion is getting its turn in the spotlight.
From the people in the audience, to the designers showcasing their cultures within their works, attendees in the room are not quiet — screaming and clapping — feeling a sense of familiarity, of pride in seeing the models walk down the runway.