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An Interview with Alter-NATIVE’s Bethany Yellowtail

by Grace Bonney

Bethany Yellowtail is well known within several communities: the world of social activists, the American Indian art scene, the global fashion industry and, perhaps most of all, she is beloved by her fans and customers who come from Native American nations from coast to coast. Yellowtail, originally from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow nations in Montana, is the C.E.O., founder, and creative director of B. Yellowtail – a Los Angeles-based clothing design company and artist collective.

Her unique success story as a person whose work captures the attention and hearts of so many disparate worlds, caught the attention of filmmaker Billy Luther, and the rest is history. Now, you can catch more than a glimpse of Yellowtail’s world on a new docu-series, Alter-NATIVE. The 6-episode series is available to watch on the Indie Lens StoryCast YouTube channel. Each episode follows Yellowtail through big events and important places in one year of her life. The audience watches Yellowtail grow her company, engage in activist movements, and find strength in her personal life.

I’ve known Bethany for a couple of years, and I’ve been familiar with her work even longer. As a bystander, fan, and friend, it has been exciting to watch her company grow, to see how she has shaken up the fashion scene, and to see her represent indigenous women in powerful and creative ways. As I watched each episode, I found myself learning even more about Bethany, rooting for her along the way, and wishing each short episode were just a bit longer. There’s so much to love about the series — you’ll have to see for yourself. But for now, here’s what Bethany has to say about it. —Chelsey Luger

Describe the “alter-NATIVE” series for somebody who hasn’t seen it yet.

It is a six-episode docu-series following my journey as a fashion designer as I navigate through fashion, art, and activism. You’ll see me going to New York, the Women’s March in D.C., and a lot of other places. You’ll get to know my perspective as an indigenous woman, and how I advocate for our people in different ways. It follows my transformation from the beginning, realizing that I have a platform to bring light to issues as a designer, and also through my personal life, finding strength and finding my voice. That’s the overall journey — me finding my voice and banding with other women, and in my own way advocating for our people. Most people will take away that they can see themselves in the work that I do, and find out how they can use their voice in their own respective ways.

How did the project come about? Were you nervous to begin shooting or were you totally ready for it?

I was approached by Billy Luther, who is a Navajo filmmaker. He does amazing films on Native people from a very unique perspective. For example, he did a film called Ms. Navajo and it was about Navajo beauty queens. I love Billy’s work because it’s not the typical thing you would see from any type of Native story — he always comes for very unique perspective. He asked me [to do a series], and I was a little hesitant because I was peak “just broke up” — was going through a life transition. I was just a hot mess and I said “I don’t think this is a good idea,” but he really encouraged me. I think he knew something big was coming, so he insisted: “I think this is a great time to capture your story.”

He was very flexible and interested in my input, and assured me that if I wasn’t comfortable with something he would be [able to] take it out, and in general that it would be very collaborative. That’s when I was like, “okay, I’ll take the leap of faith.” At first it was daunting — this was going to be a yearlong project, they wanted to know everything I was doing; my calendar, my schedule… I think that if it was a non-Native person I honestly wouldn’t have done it because I didn’t want my story to be misconstrued, or the goals that I have to be altered through a non-Native lens. I had a lot of faith in Billy because I knew he was going to do his due diligence to take care of my story and protect the things I needed to be protected. I knew people would have an inside look into my life and I was really nervous about that because I try to be pretty private, but now people were going to see me cry and see where I come from. It’s very intimate and I was afraid to be exposed — and I still am. It was very personal, but he did such a great job of telling my story and getting so much great content in each short episode. It has a lot of integrity.

Was each episode a total surprise for you to watch, or did you know what was coming?

I was involved a little bit in the editing process; not going through footage or anything like that, but they told me the theme of each episode and I gave small suggestions. They listened to me, which I was really thankful for because most times you wouldn’t have any say.

Did you feel like Beyonce with cameras following you around everywhere?

*laughs* Yeah, I sure did! Our friend circle calls me “Queen B,” so I really did feel like “Queen Bey” — especially at Indian Market and on the rez — it was so funny.

The series goes beyond the business and touches on your personal life. Were there any parts that made you feel exposed knowing that the whole world would see?

Yeah — the first episode when I brought up my heartbreak, I felt really exposed that way. All of the women who I grew up around are always so tough, so I felt very vulnerable crying on camera.

For the most part my personal life has been very much my own, but once this episode went live I felt pretty exposed. In the future, I don’t want my life to keep being on camera — I would never choose to be someone who people always have access to — but for the time being it was great to share my story and also for people to see that Native people cry, go through heartbreak, have families… even those small things for context [are] really important and necessary for the larger population to see. It humanizes us.

Even though I know you pretty well, I learned a lot about you watching it. My favorite part was the journey to the rez and meeting your parents -- they are so sweet, and it reminded me of my home! What was your family’s response to the series?

They all really liked it — my dad especially. My family is a rancher family, very rural. They were a little bit nervous, but the coolest thing is that you can really see how strong of a tie I have to my family and my siblings. At the very end of the series my dad sent me a text message, “I’m so proud of you, you made me cry.” I want my parents to be proud of me no matter what, and they were really happy with the whole series, they looked forward to watching every episode. Billy Luther has so much integrity, and he was very thoughtful about the things that were going to be included. It touched on a lot of contemporary topics for Native people on the rez.

Were there any big moments or events that didn’t make it into the episodes?

When they started filming it was right after I returned from Standing Rock (photo below). I also did a lot more activism throughout the year locally in Los Angeles. It would have been cool for the audience to see more things like that, just to give a little more context.

Also, in the last episode where we showed a really great event, my favorite part didn’t make the cut. We had a panel of women like Heather Rae and Kim Smith talking about issues in their communities. They had some bomb gems to share at that event — the knowledge was so amazing, and I’m grateful that I get to be in spaces like that. Luckily everyone who attended our event got the chance to hear it.

Will there be an alter-NATIVE series season 2?

We kind of teased about it. But honestly, I would like to see another young Native person in a very different industry be featured, because there are so many people doing incredible work all throughout Indian Country and beyond. But as for me, if Billy Luther decides he wants another season, I would do it with him.

I would like to see another young Native person in a very different industry be featured, because there are so many people doing incredible work all throughout Indian Country

Anything else?

This whole production was driven by World of Wonder Productions — they do Ru Paul’s Drag Race and a lot of other great stuff. I had this dream a while ago that I was at some sort of event with a whole bunch of two-spirit people and Natives. I remember telling my friend Marlon about this dream years ago. And then when we were at my fashion show setting up, he reminded me of it, and we realized that we were literally in Ru Paul’s production company studio. Anyway, it’s so important that a production company like that exists so that they can tell their own stories — because like Natives, their community is so underrepresented in an authentic way in mainstream media, so it’s good they can control their own narrative. It’s really that community supporting my story, so I have so much gratitude and love for the people who made it happen with all of their media and services. They were there and showed up and helped and drove my story through World of Wonder Productions and I’m so grateful to them.

If you had to choose, what was your favorite episode or scene?

I would say, the very last scene of episode 6. The ending. It was so cool to see how far I had come, and to know personally how I had struggled a lot, and it was a really testing year. But in that final scene I was just so happy, surrounded by strong, beautiful women and people I really adore. I still tear up — I’m so proud of myself when I see that episode, my little heart healed.

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Comments

  • The clothes are beautiful!! But one question I have… as a white woman, could I wear them? Here’s what I mean; the designs are clearly influenced by Native American themes. Could a non-Native person wear them without giving offense? The headlines about that girl who wore the Chinese dress to prom come to mind to say, ‘no.’ I don’t want to bring all that up. But is there a difference? The B.Yellowtail items are influenced/inspired by instead of being a replica of something. Is that the difference? Maybe it’s just where I’m at in realizing my white privilege but there’s a great apprehension to not offend. My heart would never intend that but becoming ever more aware of unintended perceptions is staggering. Just curious how to navigate these things as I, and hopefully we as a collective society, grow in regard and respect for one another.

    • Sarah

      Thanks for your thoughtful question. My opinion would be: please support and wear clothing lines that are made/designed by indigenous people. I’ll reach out to Bethany for her feedback, of course, but I think so much of the issue with cultural appropriation is a) when a culture’s design is used and sold by someone not of that culture/community (which is not the case here) and b) when the person buying or wearing it doesn’t understand/appreciate/respect the history and tradition of that design.

      This a super nuanced issue and as a white woman I absolutely cannot give a definitive answer on this, but at the end of the day, I have a feeling any designer producing something for the public would like their work to be supported, worn and understood. I think part of what I love so much about this series is that Bethany is doing such a wonderful job of explaining her traditions (culturally and artistically) and is helping all of us better understand them and appreciate them.

      I’ll reach out to Bethany for feedback though- stay tuned!

      Grace

    • Thank you for asking this! I had the same question, and look forward to hearing Bethany’s response. I would love to support her work and wear her clothing, but wouldn’t want to be disrespectful in any way.

    • I believe Bethany is trying to build a bridge. If you read her biography, she is wanting to provide a true representation of Native American influence in fashion for all shapes , sizes , race, and gender to wear and enjoy. She would be thrilled to know that you chose her clothing as part of your wardrobe!!!!

    • Hi Sarah!

      I got a response from Bethany, please see below :)

      “Believe it or not this is one of the most common questions we get asked. For us (b.yellowtail and team) it’s simple, yes we want people from all walks of life to wear and support our work.

      We thoughtfully design our products as a form of culture sharing & to celebrate indigenous resiliency & continuity. We are happy to share carefully curated messages through our clothing & accessories, as long as they are worn respectfully. We do not & will not sell items such as ceremonial regalia or sacred items. Those things would be deemed inappropriate for non-native people to use, buy or sell at anytime.

      It’s also important to note that if you are buying “native american inspired” clothing/accessories or items from non-native makers, they would not understand “culturally” what would be appropriate. Some designs in our communities, depending on the tribe, are only for certain leadership or designated people. I can safely say that each artists that sells on byellowtail.com including myself, wholeheartedly takes deep pride, understanding and consideration of this before we create and sell our own goods. That is the difference.

      By wearing B.YELLOWTAIL & items from THE COLLECTIVE, not only are you helping us authentically share our stories through creative expression that has been passed down to us, but you are also supporting a Native owned business. We deeply care for our communities and as B.YELLOWTAIL grows, so does the opportunity to employ & empower our Tribal nations.

      Next time if you find yourself in the gray area and not wanting to offend… Ask yourself how the purchase or design is actually impacting the community it originates from. If you’re a conscious consumer, ask yourself if the purchase truly supports the community. Does the purchase amplify the voices of indigenous people and the artists/designers involved?

      If the answer is Yes, then go for it!

      We hope one day this will be the new norm & we won’t have to battle for economic equity for our people. But for now, thank you for asking and we look forward to seeing you rock your B.YELLOWTAIL clothing & accessories!”

      p.s choose INSPIRED NATIVES, NOT NATIVE INSPIRED click this link if you want to learn more about pro-active ways you can support more Inspired Native Entreprenuers —>
      https://eighthgeneration.com/pages/inspired-natives-project

      nea’ese,

      Bethany”

      • Grace and Bethany,

        Thank you for your response! I appreciate you both taking time to shed more light and clarity. That completely makes sense about you having an understanding about the origins and appropriateness of various design elements. Learning the story of various motifs, colors, materials, etc. is fascinating to me, from any culture. It makes the designs have more depth than so much of the ephemera offered today. I’m glad there are some native designs that can be shared and loved by all! Again Bethany, your shop is full of lovely things and I’m excited to browse and ‘hopefully’ purchase things that are beautiful and also respect and celebrate a heritage different than my own. Thanks again for your explanation.

  • Wonderful! I can’t wait to watch the series and share Bethany Yellowtail’s activism and work with my elementary art students. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bethany is so inspiring and commendable. I am definitely going to watch the series, and am glad this production company is supporting filmmakers and artists from underrepresented comminities. I am eager to hear Bethany’s response to who she hopes to see wearing her beautiful clothing.

  • I need those dresses in my life! I dont see them on the website though. Are they from an upcoming collection?

    • Hi SDC, the dresses in alterNATIVE are from summer 2017. The whole collection is completely sold out but please subscribe to our website at byellowtail.com for announcements on our summer 2018 collection release . We have a very special collection coming very soon!

  • Aaniin Bethany,

    Miigwech for all the work that you are doing for Natives. It gives me all the feels to see a Native female on an elevated platform creating beautiful works of art for the world. I bought the B.Yellowtail elk tooth necklace a few years ago and it’s always been a great talking piece. I was also gifted your Walking Wall art collaboration with Wakeah Jhane for the Land of Nod collection and it’s proudly displayed in my home. I really appreciate how you provide high-quality authentic indigenous items that are easily available and ready to buy. I’m looking forward to seeing the B.Yellowtail summer collection!

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