Norma Baker-Flying Horse never considered herself a designer, or even a brand. Her desire to preserve her culture through clothing morphed into a Grammy-winning business promoting Native representation in Arizona.
Photo Provided by Norma Baker-Flying Horse
Baker-Flying Horse is a registered member of the Hidatsa, Dakota Sioux, and Assibione tribes, as well as an adopted member of the Crow tribe. Growing up on the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation reservation in North Dakota, she danced at powwows.
Her career in fashion began six years ago while working as a full-time staffer for the MHA Nation tribal council. Cheyenne Brady, a close friend and the 2015 winner of the Miss Indian World pageant, reached out to her to design a dress for an event she was attending.
“They wanted something to represent them and their tribe,” Baker-Flying Horse said.
Baker-Flying Horse created a traditional ribbon dress for that event. Another occasion came up, and she created another dress. Before she knew it, Brady’s large social media presence was alerted to her work, and Baker-Flying Horse received a high volume of requests from people to create designs for them.
The 40-year-old designer deconstructed contemporary garments and reconstructed them using designs and materials found in traditional regalia. By merging the contemporary with the cultural, she said that her work preserves her heritage in spite of historical efforts to erase Indigenous culture.
“We may not be decolonized, but we’re certainly not giving in,” she said.
Baker-Flying Horse said that she didn’t see herself as a business, and that she was just excited to see people wearing the clothing she had created. Everything changed when she won the title of Phoenix Fashion Week’s Emerging Designer of the Year in April of last year.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Baker-Flying Horse spent a lot of time on Clubhouse, an invitation-only social media platform designed to connect users in themed “rooms”. She met Niya DeGroat in a room dedicated to Indigenous people in fashion.
DeGroat, a member of the Diné tribe in Arizona, has been a part of the Phoenix Fashion Week team since 2012. He became passionate about encouraging Native designers to take part in the organization after Aconav became the first Native brand to win the Emerging Designer of the Year title in 2018.
“I decided I wanted to elevate the discussion around Indigenous fashion,” he said.
Baker-Flying Horse said that she and DeGroat became fast friends after meeting, and he recruited her into their Emerging Designer Boot Camp.
The self-taught designer entered in order to learn more about the business side of fashion, something she had no experience in. She said that she never expected to win, and treated the process as a class rather than a competition.
Led by director Brian Hill, he and his team gave her the confidence to “unapologetically create,” and that it felt wonderful to be around open-minded people who were willing to learn as they taught her.
“They see color and uniqueness in people, but don’t put anyone into boxes,” she remarked.
Even with the support of the Phoenix Fashion Week team, both Baker-Flying Horse and DeGroat said they still struggle with combating the decades of Hollywood-fueled stereotypes against Indigenous people. DeGroat said that the one-dimensional stereotypes create a feeling of invisibility in the industry, but that social media has been a key tool in dismantling those stereotypes.
Her efforts to educate through fashion paid off. Hill performed a land acknowledgement before the April showing of Phoenix Fashion Week, something that the organization had never included before.
Her collection opened with a traditional dance performed by Baker-Flying Horse’s nieces. The 10 item collection walked the runway, featuring pieces like a hand painted buckskin dress and a ballgown patterned with traditional motifs.
Source: The Chic Daily
Red Berry Woman beat out three other emerging designers, becoming the second Native brand to win the title.
“It shows that Native designers are just as worthy, just as competitive as far as design,” DeGroat said.
Shortly after winning Emerging Designer of the Year, Baker-Flying Horse became the first Native co-recipient of the Cultural Recognition in Visual Arts Grammy award. Her collection, photographed by co-recipient Joseph Pekara of Pharaoh 171 Photography, was shown during the opening ceremonies of the televised Grammy awards.
Models/Dancers: Quannah Chasinghorse, Tessa Abbey, Elmer Flying Horse Jr., Kilyn Parisien, Tyler White. Photographed by: Joseph Pekara.
“The fashion industry is just starting to become aware that we exist,” Baker-Flying Horse said.
Global Indigenous Management, a fashion-geared nonprofit based in Australia, started the Indigenous Runway Project in 2012. The organization holds events and mentoring sessions for young Indigenous people looking to be involved in the fashion industry.
A branch of the Indigenous Runway Project has been established in the United States. According to their website, over 5,000 people have expressed interest in the program.
DeGroat and Baker-Flying Horse said that although representation for Native people in fashion is growing, their voices are still negatively impacted by cultural appropriation and designs being stolen by non-Native designers.
Norma Baker-Flying Horse and Joseph Pekara
A paper from the University of Illinois highlighted the court case of Navajo Nation vs. Urban Outfitters as an example of cultural appropriation. The case alleges that by selling “Navajo themed underwear,” the company violated the US Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
According to an article from The Guardian, Urban Outfitters settled with the Navajo Nation in 2016 after court documents revealed that the tribe registered the Navajo name as a trademark in 1943. Baker-Flying Horse said that it isn’t cultural appropriation, however, to purchase from Native designers, and encourages non-Native people to support Native designers.
“We should be sharing our cultures with so many different people,” she said.
Baker-Flying Horse thinks that non-Native people should educate themselves on where the designs are coming from when buying from her, and she does not incorporate sacred items meant exclusively for her people.
DeGroat, who has a masters degree in fashion journalism, said that Indigenous designers feel like they’re living in two worlds when it comes to fashion. Striking a balance between cultural elements and contemporary designs is difficult when dealing with a large audience.
He said that modern audiences often view Native brands as “too cultural,” and other Native designers feel that blended brands are “not cultural enough.”
“She [Baker-Flying Horse] is the perfect example of how to blend both cultures effectively,” he shared.
Native fashion became more widely discussed with Quannah Chasinghorse, one of the first mainstream Native models, Baker-Flying Horse and DeGroat said. She wore a dress from Red Berry Woman on the cover of Native Max Magazine, and has been styled by Baker-Flying Horse for multiple red carpet appearances.
“She’s propelled Indigenous people on the main stage,” DeGroat, a model casting judge for Native Max Magazine, said.
Baker-Flying Horse, whose designs have been found on the red carpet, at the Oscars and the Grammys, said that she wants Native designers to know that it’s OK for them to take up space in a positive way, and to use contemporary clothing to their advantage.
“There’s a history and a story behind everything we create,” she said.
In the past, her ancestors hid cultural clothing to prevent it from being destroyed. Nowadays, Baker-Flying Horse believes that people want to see more culture in fashion. The designer recently welcomed her third child, and she wants to ensure that her children are connected to their Native heritage through fashion.
Indigenous fashion in Arizona has found a home within Phoenix Fashion Week, but the work is far from complete, according to DeGroat. Although representation for Native designers has grown, he said that he also wants to see more Native models on the runway.
“It’s a vehicle for us to show we are just as fashionable, just as beautiful, as any other group in the industry,” he said.
Both Baker-Flying Horse and DeGroat said that the platform Phoenix Fashion Week has given them allows them to exist in the modern world, but still connect with and honors their past. However, the Red Berry Woman designer said that Native fashion as a whole is still fighting for a seat at the table.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that we’re gonna build our own,” she said.