Indian Market 100: Indigenous Fashion Forward


This year, the hugely popular Santa Fe Indian Market Indigenous Fashion Show will be a two-part event.

It’s one of the hottest tickets at Indian Market. This year the SWAIA Indigenous Fashion Show will take place from Saturday to Sunday, August 20-21.

More than a dozen designers will participate, including Catherine Blackburn (Dene, European, English River First Nation), Jamie Okuma (Luiseno, Shoshone-Bannock, Wailaki, Okinawan, La Jolla), Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), Lesley Hampton (Anishinaabe ), Orlando Dugi (Navajo), Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene Aboriginal, Cree, Scots) and Cody Sanderson (Navajo). We spoke to fashion show producer Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Siksika/Blackfoot) about what to expect.

Wes Studi models for Cody Sanderson

Cowboys & Indians: How will this year’s show be different?

Amber Dawn Bear Robe: It gets bigger by expanding over two days, with different designers for each, followed by a suitcase soiree. The aim is to expand the fashion program into a SWAIA Fashion Week.

C&I: How did the show evolve and what does it take to pull it off?

bear robe: blood, sweat and tears! [Laughs.] The first SWAIA airstrip was located outdoors in Cathedral Park. I put it together in 2013 with virtually no resources.

C&I: What will we see this year?

Bear Robe: Couture, ready-to-wear and wearable art. The mood and energy will be different. Saturday evening will be more lounge-like with a “chill” atmosphere. I encourage guests to have fun and dress up with bling, glitter and glamour. Saturday’s show will be luxurious, a very social evening. Sunday is more of a traditional runway style. Both will be at the Santa Fe Convention Center for wine and nibbles.

C&I: How do you prepare?

Bear Robe: It’s a huge production and I carry many fashion responsibilities, from model manager, artistic director, admin, liaison, and the list goes on. Ideally I would have a team overseeing each department running the show, but that takes resources. Obtaining runway lighting is challenging and expensive! Of course, lighting can turn good photos and filmography into a show that presents each designer in a visual way that highlights the collections and models. On the day of the show, the models get their hair and make-up done, and the designers do final fittings and adjustments. If you book 100 models there will always be some no shows or last minute cancellations. It’s a last-minute controlled mess, and it keeps me on my toes. Canadian modeling agency Supernaturals Indigenous is coming here again. They bring a great eclectic energy to Santa Fe and the runway.

Patricia Michaels. © Image courtesy of the designer.

C&I: Anything else new?

Bear Robe: Last year we experimented with designer suitcase shows and it proved extremely popular. This building block is planned for 2022 with more design freedom. People can meet the designers and models and buy or order directly from the designer.

C&I: Great idea! What trends do you see in indigenous fashion?

Bear Robe: There are various trendy bags in the domestic fashion. street fashion. ready to wear. High-quality. Ready-to-wear based on indigenous couture is in high demand. Another trend in the fashion industry represents all body sizes, ages, genres and traditional industry expectations – diversity in size, color, shape, form and gender.

C&I: How is diversity progressing in the fashion industry, particularly with the inclusion of Indigenous designers?

Bear Robe: In America, the representation of Indigenous designers is much lower compared to the Indigenous fashion and art scene in Canada. I don’t see any real, long-term commitment from clothing and larger fashion houses to local designers. I have seen major changes in Canada such as Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, Toronto Indigenous Fashion Week now titled Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival, magazine covers, news and media coverage outside of the Indigenous niche bubble.

C&I: What don’t people know about indigenous fashion?

Bear Robe: If I can convey one thing, it is that the indigenous people are extremely diverse in their expression, their art and their design. A Native designer, artist, or model does not speak for or represent all Native Americans. It is ridiculous [to think] that a region can represent the wealth of creativity in Canada and the United States. There is no single sentence, word, or box that can answer the question, “What is Native American fashion?” that I keep getting asked. It’s like asking, “What is American fashion?” The Met Gala’s latest theme, American fashion, has seen it come in many forms and guises. In fact, Indigenous design is central to American fashion. Most people don’t recognize this underpinning of design in the United States. We need to get away from this pan-Indian notion of indigenous North Americans. Native fashion can be funny, serious, political, conceptual, historical and futuristic.

C&I: What about the upcoming market?

Bear Robe: I love SWAIA market time. It is a place for people of all regions to come together to celebrate indigenous art in all its diversity. We meet up with old and new friends and family. People don their native bling, from Okuma dresses, statement jewelry, power shoes and strut their stuff. SWAIA Fashion Shows are a unique experience that you won’t get anywhere else in America.

Patricia Michael’s runway photo courtesy of SWAIA.


Fashion designer Sho Sho Esquiro, who now lives in a condominium in New Westminster, British Columbia, grew up in Canada’s remote Yukon.

“It’s pretty drastic and extreme. It’s just a beautiful place. I’m a proud Yukoner,” she says.

On the two-day drive she often makes from Vancouver home in the Yukon, she may see bears, moose, foxes, a herd of caribou, beavers, porcupines, eagles, owls and magpies.

“It’s always a blessing when animals present themselves to you,” she says.

And it’s a long, three-day drive for Esquiro, 41, from Vancouver to Santa Fe in her car loaded with her fashionable clothes. Specializing in indigenous couture streetwear and indigenous luxury, she uses recycled furs and various leathers. She shows in museums and on catwalks, including fashion shows in Paris and at New York Fashion Week. Socio-political statements can be found on their new clothes. A wool ombre cashmere dress includes the statement “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” which is beaded to the back making it look almost abstract.

“It’s a quote from Richard Pratt, who was responsible for opening boarding schools in the United States,” she says.

A 24k gold, sealskin, wool and mother-of-pearl bustier top says “Worth Our Wait in Gold”.

The spelling is intentional, of course: “As if we await justice for the murder of missing tribal women,” says Esquiro. “I live by a river and for the whole two months that I did the play there was a big eagle sitting outside in a tree. There were times I would cry, pearls.”

At her SWAIA Trunk Show she will sell unique upcycled denim jackets.

“[Indian Market has] was everything for my career,” she says. “I’ve made incredible friends. There was networking and opportunities to push myself as an artist.”

Market has only recently begun accommodating First Nations artists and for Esquiro it is an opportunity to represent Canadians, First Nations, Kaska and the Yukon.

“I’ve mentored emerging Yukon artists,” she says, “so SWAIA has not only helped me, but indirectly others as well.”


Design by Sho Sho Esquiro; SWAIA fashion show 2018

Design by Sho Sho Esquiro; SWAIA fashion show 2018

Design by Sho Sho Esquiro; sculpted by Joleen Mitton; SWAIA fashion show 2018



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