Delina White designs apparel and produces fashion shows celebrating and perpetuating Native cultural heritage

This article is part of a series highlighting artists and leaders featured at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit, a biennial, practitioner-driven gathering hosted by Springboard for the Arts that celebrates and expands the field of rural arts-based community development. The 2019 Summit will take place October 3 – 5, 2019 at the Reif Center for Performing Arts in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Learn more and register at

Delina White’s granddaughter Snowy modeling White’s birch bark earrings.

Delina White’s grandmother, Maggie King, started teaching her beadwork when she was just six years old, basically as a way to keep the child occupied when she would visit for holidays.

“She was a master artist but didn’t know it,” says White. “She would do a flat stitch on velvet bags and sell them on the street for $5. She lived in a two-room shack with no electricity.”

White laughs gently at the mention of her grandmother’s extraordinary work that she would sell for so little and had so little to show for it, underscoring the extent to which her grandmother undervalued her own work and talent.

She continues, “That’s where my love of beads began. I love the way they feel on my fingers, just playing with the beads and the sequins. It brings back memories of when I used to do that as a little girl.”

White also remembers having a lifelong interest in fashion: sewing clothes and beading tiny bags for her Barbie dolls as a little girl; attending the Barbizon Modeling School as a teenager. Throughout her life she has always been drawn back to her love of fabrics and beads, fashion and beauty.

White is a Native apparel designer and beadwork artist. She is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe from northern Minnesota—a tribe that is part of a larger group of culturally-related indigenous tribes from the Northeast Woodlands and Subarctic regions of North America known collectively as Anishinaabe—and lives in the village of Inger on the Leech Lake Reservation in her grandmother’s old home. As a fashion designer, White started by making earrings, barrettes, and bags, utilizing that intricate beadwork she learned as a child. Now she is so busy creating couture looks for fashion shows and other apparel that she doesn’t have much time for that labor-intensive beadwork, though it’s still her favorite thing to do.

Delina White’s daughter Lavender (left) and granddaughter Snowy.

These days, White creates clothes and accessories for her label I Am Anishinaabe along with her daughters Lavender Hunt and Sage Davis and granddaughter Snowy, and also designs for fashion shows like the Haute Couture Fashion Show in Santa Fe, which she describes as “the New York Fashion Week of Indian Country” and “a dream come true.”

While she loves everything about fashion and fabrics and the intricate design details in beadwork, she loves other aspects of the fashion industry just as much, especially working with models. Since she started doing fashion shows in 2015, White has worked with 70 indigenous models.

“I feel like I’m giving them an opportunity to build their self-esteem,” she says. “Every time I put on a show I do training and coaching with them so they learn to turn and spin and walk with their heads up; all these techniques people have made fun of models for doing for eternity, but it’s really not easy. Modeling isn’t for everybody.”

When White is looking for models, she will announce casting calls through Facebook, and often will just ask around or reach out to people that have been recommended to her.

“We’re taking girls who have never been off the rez or on a plane and giving them an opportunity to wear beautiful clothing, have their hair, nails, and makeup done, and walk for people,” she says. “It’s really a big thing for them, and it’s a scary thing, so I’m happy to provide them with these opportunities to build their confidence, and also develop their speaking skills with the meet-and-greets after the show. That’s the human interaction part of it. It’s a performance. I always tell them that they need to do more than walk; they need to really walk and shine.”

This year she presented a “two-spirit” fashion show, featuring androgynous clothing that both men and women can wear. She showed nine looks at this show, which she says was a “major production.”

In many Native cultures, the term “two-spirit” refers to a person who does not conform to binary male/female genders, representing a “third gender” and fulfilling ceremonial roles as such. “Two-spirit” is not a reference to LGBTQ Natives, but rather to non-gender-conforming, transgender, or other gender-queer identities.

When she first started planning the two-spirit fashion show, she announced that she was looking for two-spirit models and included her full proposal for the show (which hadn’t yet been booked). She received 45 applications from all over North America. She says the hardest part was choosing only 10.

“I’m very supportive of the two-spirit community,” she says. “I have many two-spirit relatives and friends.” She shares a story about a male-identifying two-spirit who wanted to dress in traditional male regalia for a powwow instead of the women’s traditional jingle dresses. He asked White to make his suit because he wanted to dance as a man, and on the day of the powwow he danced in with the Men’s Woodland category. It was a very emotional moment for both of them; White says they hugged each other and cried.

“It went wonderfully,” she remembers. “I had told him, ‘I believe you need to do what makes you happy and if this is what makes you happy then that’s what the Creator wants for you.’ I love creating happiness for people and [spreading the message] to love everybody. My clothing makes people happy with who they are.”

Delina White dancing in a powwow.

White has always loved powwows and would dance in them as a child—her mother would make all her dance outfits, including all the beadwork—but it wasn’t until her own children were grown that she began dancing in them again in the last 10 years. This is the only time when she wears her own creations; the rest of her time she spends creating things for other people to enjoy.

A few years ago she started making traditional apparel with help from various grants supporting folk, traditional, and Native arts, and with this assistance she was able to produce her first fashion show in 2015, the Great Lakes Woodland Skirts Fashion Show, which traveled to five different venues around Minnesota. For this show, she used image projections paired with her own narration alongside her clothing designs to share the history of the traditional Native women’s ribbon skirt and how this garment is still a viable item of clothing that can be worn every day to further perpetuate and celebrate its cultural legacy.

“I re-made the ribbon skirt and showed how you can wear them on a daily basis to show your cultural pride, and that’s really taken off,” says White. “That’s where [my traditional apparel work] started and how it evolved.”

She says that fashion hasn’t really been accepted in the art community as yet, outside of the avant-garde, outrageous, ostentatious couture pieces you see on runways or on performers like Lady Gaga. But she believes it’s important to consider our daily style as art—a critical form of self-expression that we all engage in every single day.

“To me, fashion is about tattoos, hair styling, the kind of makeup you wear—it’s the message you want to send to people about yourself,” she says. “Every day we wake up and decide what we want to wear. It’s like being a walking billboard. That’s how important fashion and apparel is to me: It’s essential.”

Photo by Amanda Hankerson of Lace/Hanky Photography, supplied courtesy of I Am Anishinaabe.

She plans to create some ready-to-wear dresses and skirts next, which she debuted at the Santa Fe show and is already fielding demand for them. She’s currently applying for a business loan and working with a local sewing factory to hire sewers from the community. The factory she is in conversation with hires Hmong refugee sewers, who are able to work from their homes, and White really likes the idea of hiring them, supplying them with their own machines, and teaching them the kinds of stitches she likes to use in her apparel. Contracting out the actual sewing work would also free her up to focus more on designing as well as getting back to the beadwork that she loves.

“Right now, I’m a one-woman show. I’m doing all the cold calls, the design, production, marketing, everything,” she says. “I enjoy doing all of it but it’s getting hard to keep up.”

She continues, “I definitely want to get back to my beadwork and bags. I want to do a beaded dress and other things that will take a year or two to make, and I will be picky about future fashion shows [because they take so much time to prepare for].”

That said, she definitely wants to do the Santa Fe Haute Couture Fashion Show again. At this year’s show, she showcased the fabrics she makes of her beadwork designs. She’ll take high-resolution images of her beadwork and get those photos digitally printed onto fabrics, which she then uses to make scarves and dresses. Last year she made an extremely limited run of scarves just to see how they would sell and says they “really took off.” This year she plans to make more in different colors and designs and wants to have those ready in time for the Christmas season.

White was one of only two Anishinaabe artists at the Sante Fe Indian Market (where the Haute Couture Fashion Show is held). She brought some of her birch bark earrings to the market and people kept asking about them, so she explained to people that birch bark is really important to her people and is used to make everything from cookware to canoes.

“When we come from Minnesota we tend to neglect or take for granted the things that we have here, then we travel somewhere else that doesn’t have the lakes or the tall trees and realize what we have,” she says. “Any community has something that’s really special about it, so I like to bring what I know from my environment and my landscape to other people. Sharing it with others makes me appreciate it even more.”

Beyond expanding her business with an everyday apparel line and delving back into beadwork, White has one more goal: She would love to see her work in the pages of Vogue. Otherwise, she is thrilled to be able to keep doing what she loves.

“I’m so blessed that people like my work. Everybody has been really supportive of me, helping me get work out there, marketed, seen, shown, and getting all these opportunities coming my way.”

All photos courtesy of Delina White/I Am Anishinaabe. Cover photo of Delina White by Amanda Hankerson of Lace/Hanky Photography, supplied courtesy of I Am Anishinaabe.

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I’ve collaborated with [the Onaman Collective], who are environmental artists and [social practice] artists. Their work is very simple, almost like a coloring book. Their images are very simple and powerful and are associated with [issues affecting Native communities], so I contacted them to ask if I could use these images to make fabrics for skirts. I made one skirt [out of pieces from each of the artists in the collective]. I think it’s powerful imagery so people understand who we are what the issues in Indian country are right now, and how we can confront those issues and make changes. Their images are about “water is life” and missing and murdered women—indigenous women and transgendered women (the two-spirits).

I also collaborated with Thomas X [a rapper from the Red Lake Nation]. He allowed me to use his songs “Can You Hear Me” and “Rezolution” in one of my shows.

(2) How do you start a project?
I get inspiration from lots of different places. I think about my grandmother, and about what my ancestors wore and how I can bring that into today’s environment. Everything I do has [inspiration from] Anishinabe and Woodland Native culture. That is what I specialize in because that’s who I am and what I know, so I can share that information. It’s very important that I have the Woodland tribes and the Great Lakes [tribes] in anything I do because I have to claim whatever I do as mine. I get inspiration at ceremonies because people bring out their sacred items and they’re all so beautiful with different color combinations, then I see fabrics and go crazy thinking about what I would do with them. When I get my models I design according to the models: the work has to fit their look. I have models who are more demure, some who are more sexy, or more classic, and when I design I make sure [the garment] fits the look of model as well. There are a lot of things that come into play that I like to think about.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I think it is immeasurable; invaluable. When we talk about the insight and the knowledge and the creativity…I enjoy the world of other artists and their clothing and their jewelry. I can see all of the creativity—all of the thought, the care and consideration that goes into it—and I appreciate that, so that’s the intrinsic value of the creativity that you can’t put a price on. The information I’ve learned from my elders is what’s invaluable, and when I can give that to someone else and encourage them then that’s bigger than the artwork itself.

(4) How do you define success?
It all comes down to recognition I receive. [I feel] most successful when I receive a grant, or when I have a fashion show and can show my work on runways, or when my art is in a magazine and someone has taken it and said, “This is really good and we’re going to show it because we think it deserves recognition.” For me that’s what success is: when other people appreciate my work and when it’s sincere.

(5) How do you fund your work?
Every penny I have goes into my work, and then bills and what it takes to live. I live such a meager life. I take family loans out to cover the bills. When it comes to how I spend my money, it goes back into my artwork. I might be a “starving artist:” I don’t have any money for food but I have enough to buy a couple of yards of fabric!