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The Indigenous presence on Instagram is thwarting a myth of America’s past

Beadwork has remained central to Native North American culture since before colonial contact, but its recent rise on social media is forcing the non-native West to reckon with an image of Indigeneity still trapped in yesteryear.

‘Once upon a long time ago’ chimes Carrie Bradshaw at the opening of Sex and the City 2 ‘there was an island…some Dutch, some Indians and some beads.’

And so goes the myth of New York City’s ‘birth’, so ingrained in the American origin story that it set the stage for a somewhat controversial Hollywood movie. If that isn’t a testament to the media’s sparkly commercialisation of Indigenous culture, I don’t know what is.

But this narrative, that settlers purchased Manhattan Island for just a few beads, has justified the stereotype of Native Americans as a people easily exploited for their lack of business acumen.

Besides assuming all exchange systems must align with those of the White West, it has cemented a fiction of beadwork’s provenance.

In reality, beadwork has remained central to Indigenous culture since before European contact. Prior to the advent of glass beads, which arrived with colonisers, practitioners used naturally available materials such as shell and animal bone to adorn clothing and everyday objects.

Today, this function remains, providing a vital livelihood for Indigenous people. But many young artists are now utilising Instagram as a means of promoting their work.

If you haven’t stumbled across First Nations beadwork on Instagram, you might have spotted their intricate designs – from Baby Yoda patches to brightly hued earrings – in recent articles by VOGUE.

It’s no coincidence that the fashion giant has set its sights on this flourishing craft, a reimagined take on the centuries-old practice that has been lauded for its ‘resilient’ ability to ‘modernise’ and make ‘trendy’ a pillar of Native American history.

And it’s not just VOGUE. As you may have noticed, First Nations material culture is no stranger to the Western fashion circuit.

In 2016, retailer Urban Outfitters reached a settlement with members of the Navajo nation after they filed a 2012 lawsuit over the brand’s ‘Navajo’ collection.

Despite tribal members trademarking the name ‘Navajo’ in 1943, retail giants like Urban, who at the time were enjoying the status of leading Highstreet trendsetters, co-opted the term as part of the early 2010’s ‘neo-Navajo’ trend.

This obsession with all things ‘Native’ peaked with the feathered headdresses and geometric racerbacks of Coachella-bound celebrities.

But these trends are part of a history of Indigenous appropriation that has homogenised the 562 tribes Native to North America into a vapid fashion accessory.

Commodification of the headdress and Totem Pole has long ignored the spiritual importance of these cultural symbols amongst Indigenous peoples. This continued aestheticisation of Indigenous North Americans has justified their status as a people of the ‘past’.

From film to advertising, Native peoples have been presented as nature loving, tepee dwelling nomads, an outdated image of Indigenous life that has only grown more prominent in the era of climate change.

Depicted as a fountain of knowledge from which non-Indigenous society can extract information at will, Native Americans are continually positioned outside of mainstream culture.

They are seen as purveyors of an imagined history in which America’s murky colonial truths don’t exist, and from which the White Westerner can co-opt images that assuage their modern anxieties.

The recent discovery of over 700 unmarked graves of Indigenous children near Canadian Residential schools has forced North America to reckon with its troubled history, but where does this leave Indigenous futurity?

Celebrating contemporary Indigenous bead artists for their ability to ‘modernise’ a ‘traditional’ craft demonstrates the media’s continued struggle to break from this frame of ‘pastness’.

These narratives suggest that it is only the presence of familiar ‘pop culture’ imagery that validates Native inclusion in the modern world.

Indigenous youth must be recognised as vital members of contemporary American society, actively engaged in the same digital platforms as other Gen Zers. Practitioners like Mel Beaulieu (@the.beads.knees) of the Mi’kmaq First Nation is using their Instagram to curate and sell elaborate beaded earrings and clothing patches, a project that has provided economic and creative sovereignty to Indigenous individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reports have found that Native American’s have a 2.2 times greater COVID case incidence than other Americans, and almost quadruple the death rate of White people in states like Montana.

Combined with an already lacking access to healthcare, COVID has exacerbated the marginalisation of Indigenous communities. This makes Instagram a vital platform, with its capacity to transform hobbies like beadwork into businesses.

Artists like Mel and Cree beader Heather Stewart (@sweetgrass_beads) have built substantial followings on the site, promoting work on their own terms and bypassing the curatorial authority of Western museums, which have framed Indigenous artwork as historical artefact.

Mel’s recent work based on Little Nas X’s Montero (Call me by your name) uses the pop anthem to explore issues of Native two-spirit sexuality and the traumas of North America’s residential schools. Splicing pop culture references and lurid colours into political commentary, these artists are speaking to the lived experiences of today’s Indigenous youth.

It is vital that these practitioners are celebrated for their craft beyond the frame of historic resilience.

When we only see resilience we only celebrate strength, downplaying the realities of Indigenous struggle and placing the burden for change onto their shoulders.

It’s time we recognise the many ways Native Americans have not only shaped their country’s history, but continue to frame its present. Supporting young Indigenous artists online is one way to heed the call of their popular hashtag, and start acknowledging the many ways that #thefutureisindigenous.

 

This article was originally written Flo Bellinger (she/her). ‘I’m an intern at Thred, focusing on marketing and outreach. I study Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology at the University of Oxford, and seek to explore the ways social media can be used to amplify marginalised voices. Follow me on LinkedIn and drop me some feedback via email.’

 

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