Move over Malibu Barbie, make room for these Indigenous fashionistas

Breanna Deis is a two-spirit Dene artist based in Vancouver. (Submitted by Breanna Deis - image credit)
Breanna Deis is a two-spirit Dene artist based in Vancouver. (Submitted by Breanna Deis - image credit)

For Breanna Deis, Indigenous representation is important. It's why the two-spirit Dene artist has been transforming Barbies with tiny handmade beadwork and ribbon skirts.

"[Toys] are such an important part of childhood, like something that really shapes you," said Deis, who is based in Vancouver.

She's upcycled around three dozen dolls so far, illustrating a diversity of body types, skin tones, hair colours, and genders, with jewellery, ribbon skirts and dresses that Deis beaded and sewed.

"Making that tiny little pair of earrings or a necklace for the doll kind of has that personal touch that I think makes the dolls really special," said Deis.

Reconnecting journey

Deis's mother is Ulkatcho Dene and is a Sixties Scoop survivor. Beadwork has been a way for the mother-daughter duo to reconnect to their culture and identity.

Submitted by Breanna Deis
Submitted by Breanna Deis

She started beading in 2020 as a hobby through Bead This In Your Style challenges shared online where a pattern is released every month, and then grew an online following with her original work.

Barbies have always been a fascination for Deis. She started collecting old Indigenous-themed dolls from Etsy and eBay, like the ones you could find in a 1990s Sears catalogue or that are reminiscent of Disney's portrayal of Pocahontas.

Submitted by Breanna Deis
Submitted by Breanna Deis

The 1993 Native American Barbie is a part of her collection. The doll has long braids and a buckskin dress. While representation in dolls has improved significantly since then, Deis said the majority still look the same and are set in a historical, pre-colonization past.

"They're not showing what Indigenous people are like today or the idea that we're still around," she said.

Reflecting modern Indigenous fashion

That's something she wanted to change and how she got the idea to create dolls to reflect how Indigenous people look today with contemporary Indigenous fashion.

"The thing about representation is it doesn't just benefit the person that it represents, but it benefits everybody," she said.

Keyonah Lambert, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, appreciates the dolls. She bought multiple items from Deis after coming across her work on social media.

Submitted by Keyonah Lambert
Submitted by Keyonah Lambert

"As soon as I stumbled upon those [dolls], I said, 'I have to have some,'" said Lambert.

Lambert has a six-month-old daughter, and had been on the lookout for Indigenous-made toys and books. It's something she didn't see when she was growing up.

"Even sometimes now, I'll see a Pocahontas doll in the store. She's beautiful, but it's not what I want to project onto my child," said Lambert.

"It's really important to me to have dolls that are going to look like her and that are going to look like her classmates."

Submitted by Breanna Deis
Submitted by Breanna Deis

It's one of the reasons why Deis continues to make more dolls. She said it's been both nostalgic to relive her childhood days of playing with dolls, but also rewarding to see kids and adults alike be drawn to the dolls.

"Whenever adults see the dolls, they light up the most and are finally seeing one that looks just like them," she said.

"Seeing how much joy that it brings to people I think is really, really rewarding."