This piece is written and edited from the perspective of two Native women. We are a vastly diverse population of people from many different tribes and traditions, and though we do have certain sacred commonalities, our experiences should not be lumped entirely together. None of us can speak for the body of the whole, though we hope to do each and every member of our Native community justice in our words.
In the event that I find myself putting on my moccasins, my grandmother is always present. In fact, the only way I learned how to put on my moccasins was and continues to be, by her teaching. The process, in time, gets easier, but the amount of love that falls into it stays constant. I can hear her now, humming words to a song that asks for guidance in how to dress accurately and in good heartedness. I can hear her now translating Keresan words into English as they spill into each wrap. Most of these words are repeats from memories that she has of her mother tightening into her memory when she underwent this process at my age.
Repeats of memory. Of process. This is what our traditional regalia is.
To wear this regalia means to embody one more than ourselves. When we wear our regalia, we are saying that we accept a journey, one that means taking on our sister or taking on our grandmothers; taking on someone who we aspire to be more like every single day. The cultures that run in deep in each of us place value on our sisters. They place value on the women instincts and the women voice, centered in appreciation and respect. When we wear our belts, we are wrapping sacred and secretive knowledge for generations to come. The knowledge that I can share is that we are teaching our daughters, our sons, our children, and their children how to love one another- how to put each other before ourselves.
Sometimes our regalia is a sacrifice. When we put together a traditional outfit, we stay awake into the early hours of the morning gathering materials, piecing colors representative of the occasion, planning and organizing if they need to match with the outfits of one another.
Sometimes our regalia is a statement. An embodiment larger than ourselves. But for every time we wear our regalia it is an extension of ourselves. It is a statement saying that we respect ourselves, those who came before us, and those who will come after us.
Our regalia is not “fashion”. It is a way to express our most radiant yet sensitive feelings - each crest is folded warmth of our grandmothers’ firmness.
Our regalia is courage.
Our regalia means embodying identity that has long been taken advantage of. It means taking on an identity that people have attempted to raid for entertainment, that people have tried to twist, manipulate, and hurt, in order to feed their own selfish, consumptive desires.
Wearing our regalia is a sign that we are intending to care for one another. We see this with Save Our Sisters, a year long project which spreads awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women using visual and practical arts. The creator of the project, Marita Growing Thunder, fulfills her mission by wearing a different traditional dress to her classes each day.
As native men, women, and two-spirit people, our traditional wear represents lifelong rooms of sleeping children, which our mothers and their mothers and those mothers’ mothers tippy-toed through to find the perfectly matching apron to a belt. It represents life-long knowledge.
Within every vibrant color there is a story that was told on how to create that color, or a story that was shared over stitching that color.
Our regalia means honor. It means unconditional love for who we are as indigenous women.
It’s not a costume, or something that we wear for entertainment. So the next time you think about dressing as a “Sexy Indian”, think about the energy that we put into our real, authentic versions. Think about the humility that each of these costumes, which make joke of what is sacred to us, take away from us. These costumes are made to mimic what mainstream society has painted us, ugly stereotypes that eventually perpetuate assault and murder of our communities. Think of the grandmothers who these costumes aren’t being sensitive to. Think about our regalia, which carry and represent an entire people, full of families who work hard to provide for their families just like yours. Think about the type of love that goes into work like that, that goes into ways of being. This same love goes into our regalia.
Unconditional and innocent love.
Our love for each other is assaulted when we see these costumes.
And for that- Our rage is heavy and loud.
Our rage is for our families.
But, it’s how radiant our dresses, our ribbons, our jingles, our wraps, our mantas, our leis look when we stand together that keep us light and strong.
It’s how beautiful we look laughing in our regalia, defying all the forces that are still fighting to bring us down, that carries me into sweet, sweet vitality.
We represent love with each layer. When we wear our dresses, when we tie our hair in tight threads of red and white representing the peace and protection in us, we represent peace and dignity. We signify the strength in our grandmothers and grandfathers who have given us life’s greatest gift: to be who we distinctly are.
Our regalia is ourselves. Our family. Our communities.
Our love. And strength.