Beyond stereotypes: An interview with Native American designer Bethany Yellowtail

It’s International Women’s Day, which highlights the need for gender equality and inclusiveness both in and out of the workplace. This year’s theme is #PressforProgress, which according to the official website is about “motivating and uniting friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.”

They also shared a fairly depressing prediction made by the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report that gender parity will be reached … in about 200 years.

For many women in the workplace, being respected and treated as equals can feel like a daily challenge. As a Native American woman, designer Bethany Yellowtail, of B. Yellowtail, also struggles with reaching acceptance and respect for both her culture and designs. She spoke with Ladders about trying to make her way as a female entrepreneur bootstrapping her business and smashing stereotypes — if not quite the glass ceiling — on a daily basis.

Traditional skills fueled her career

While Yellowtail’s designs caught the eye of Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, as well as celebrity fans, her background is more modest. She grew up in Northern Cheyenne nation, in Montana and began sewing in middle school.

Learning to sew and create beadwork in the traditional manner was part of her heritage and ultimately fueled her career. “Community skillset is very much alive, making regalia and traditional wear to wear to cultural events,” Yellowtail said.

She moved to California at the age of 17 and studied design. After graduating, Yellowtail spent about seven years working in all manner of jobs in the fashion industry including a stint at BCBG. She was able to transition from creating native only designs to a business that honors her heritage and recently partnered with Crate & Barrel on a new children’s collection.

Clearing up misperceptions

Not only is Yellowtail a female entrepreneur, for better or worse she represents a very specific minority in the workplace to many whose only understanding of native culture comes from TV or movies. Yellowtail explained that “the worldview of native people is so inaccurate. People even seeing my last name aren’t sure what to make of it.”

For all the differences so, there are many similarities with the universal struggle many women and especially minorities face, “we’re all just fighting for humanity. To be changed from that prototypical image.”

Cultural sharing, not appropriation

While Yellowtail doesn’t consider herself a role model per se, she fiercely fights for the rights of native artisans, designers, and creative entrepreneurs. “As a female entrepreneur and native person, I feel like I’m constantly battling an industry appropriating our cultural designs,” Yellowtail said.

But she does notice a shift. Yellowtail receives questions from non-native people all the time wondering what appropriation is or isn’t.

Art as commerce

If you love native designs, Yellowtail advises going directly to the source and supporting native people and artists. In that way, she says: “We continue owning our narrative. Owning our stories. We have access to knowing those boundaries.”

On the B. Yellowtail website, you can find out the artisan of each piece and learn about them and the nation they come from and “where they learned their gift. Their humanity. It directly affects our community. It’s so needed.” It also allows those who might not find work to create and sell their traditional arts and handcrafted items.

Yellowtail shared some sad facts including a 70% unemployment rate among Native Americans and that her community has the highest rate of sexual violence. She believes it affects her community, and their ability to be self-supporting and economically independent.

Learn more

Bethany Yellowtail is the subject of a new six-part docuseries called ‘alter-NATIVE’ — released this week on PBS’s Storycast. The series is produced by World of Wonder (creators of RuPaul’s Drag Race) and directed by renowned Native American filmmaker Billy Luther. Luther told Ladders “It was fascinating to see how on the one hand her designs tell stories and speak to the history of her people while also resonating with the current political climate.”

He also said, “This ability to rise above prejudice and bigotry has always been a key inspiration and core of my work, and to have the opportunity to follow an artist like Bethany, was a true honor and inspiration.”