Indigenous artists call for apology after American reality TV star spotted in regalia

·3 min read

Several Indigenous artists and designers in B.C. are angry and calling for an apology after an American reality TV star was spotted wearing regalia with ripped jeans and stilettos in a way they say disrespects the Indigenous cultures of the Northwest Coast.

Nene Leakes from The Real Housewives of Atlanta wore a red-fringed button blanket as a cape on her way to a television appearance in New York City earlier this week.

Leakes posted a photo of herself in the regalia on her Instagram page with the caption "Baby it's cold outside."

Lou-Ann Neel, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist and button blanket maker, said she was "livid" when she saw it.

"You always wear your blanket … only in ceremonies. And you're wearing your finest, you're representing your tribe, your people, your family," Neel said.

"So to see this woman in torn up jeans, I know that's the everyday style, but that's not an everyday cape you're wearing. So it was shocking and hugely disappointing."

On Instagram, Leakes tagged Indian-American designer Naeem Khan as having designed the cape.

Neither the designer nor Leakes immediately responded to CBC's requests for comment.

The cape is not inspired by Indigenous regalia — it copies it, Neel said.

The cape appears to have a raven, eagle or thunderbird on the back and looks similar to the ceremonial blankets of the Tlingit or Haida, Neel said.

Leakes took one of her culture's most sacred belongings and wore it as "this week's fad," she said.

"Where does that blanket end up afterwards? Just tossed in a closet, and before you know it it will be sitting in a thrift store," she said.

'It goes against all our beliefs'

Gitxsan fashion designer Yolanda Skelton said the regalia is worn during special events like memorials, celebrations, and feasts. The designs include family crests and tell the story of where its wearer is from.

She said that's different from when Indigenous artists create designs for the public to buy to that are appropriate to wear in more casual public settings.

It is not cultural appropriation to go to a designer and purchase a piece that is tailor-made for the wearer, she said.

"I think education is a huge part in trying to help this not happen as often," she said.

Neel's niece Jamie Gentry, a Kwakwaka'wakw moccasin designer, says if someone isn't sure whether it's appropriate to wear something, they should ask where it comes from, who made it, and what their background is.

"If those questions can't be answered, I would say walk away. An artist would not make something that would be used in ceremony and sell that to anybody," she said.

"It's wrong. It goes against all our beliefs."

Gentry said it's "100 per cent" okay to buy from Indigenous designers. It supports that artist and their culture, she said. An Indigenous artist will also not sell something as streetwear that is meant for ceremony, she added.

An apology from Leakes would go a long way in helping others understand the impact of cultural appropriation, Gentry said.

"We all make mistakes, we're human," she said.

"It's how you learn from that mistake that's important.'