Two-Spirit and Indigenous Fashion

A Conversation With Delina White (Leech Lake)

Delina White (photo by Sarah Whiting)

In June 2019, Delina White’s clothing collection was featured in a Walker Art Center show called “Indigenous Spirit: Gender Fluid Fashion Show.” It was organized in  deference  to the Two-Spirit identity in Native culture. Although the term “Two- Spirit” is newer, the centuries-old concept refers to the sacred space held by Indigenous people who embody the spirit of two genders. Two-Spirit people are sometimes seen as “dusk,” keeping the balance between “male” mornings and “female” evenings. We asked White to talk about the clothing she designs.

Q: How did you develop your gender fluid fashion?

My purpose is to create clothing that makes people proud and that expresses who they are — their attitude about life, or important messages they want to send to others about themselves. It is not easy being marginalized. Wearing clothing that expresses who you are takes great courage.

In conversations about traditional teachings and skirts, it became apparent that we needed gender fluid clothing. Some  of  my Two-Spirit relatives were excited to be able to celebrate their individualism. As a Native woman, I know a lot about what is offensive in stereotypes, so it was a pleasure to approach this work in a way that honors true identity. The only way we can change perceptions is to educate people about the false and limiting things they have learned.

To help do that, I mix what others consider ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ clothing, to create pieces that exist outside labels. For example, I have created skirts with a look of Victorian Gothic that have design elements connected to Anishinaabe style. I have created a traditional Great Lakes Woodland style dance suit for a trans man.

I use the word ‘beautiful’ as a non-binary term that describes an appreciation of awe. Accessorizing with hair, make-up, fragrance, and even tattoos creates something unique and beautiful.

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Q: Tell us about the Walker Fashion Show.

In 2017, I approached Jacqueline Stahlman at the Walker Art Center, with illustrations  of collections I have always wanted to create. Together we decided to celebrate Pride Month in June 2019. The outcome was the most fun fashion show I have ever produced. The event was packed to full capacity, the air was filled with anticipation, and the audience responded with enthusiasm by dancing and having a great time.

My clothing can be worn by everyone, all races and genders. Recognizing, acknowledging, and celebrating our Two- Spirits from the Native and Indigenous communities, by inviting  Two-Spirit  models from across the U.S. and Canada, was an important consideration. I received many applications, and whittling down the selection to ten models was difficult. I look for charismatic models who have a kind heart and expand the boundaries of the catwalk into an engaging experience.

Q: How did your ancestry influence you?

My style of the Anishinaabe and Great Lakes Woodland traditional designs is the foundation of everything I do. The history  of my people, and the struggles of my ancestors, makes it important to perpetuate the traditional life ways.

My grandmother taught me how to do beadwork. My mother taught me how to sew. When I do these things, I am staying grounded and connected to all my relations and ancestors. This makes me happy. I am Anishinaabe.

My grandmother and grandfather, Maggie and Jack King, lived in a two-room tar paper shack. I lived with them every summer and during school vacations. We had no running water or electricity. Our reservation did not get running water or electricity until the mid- 1970s. My grandfather had a transistor radio that we would sometimes listen to, but mostly there was silence. My grandparents spoke Anishinaabemowin in hushed voices.

My grandmother would let me play with beads and sequins from her coffee tin, and buttons from another. I loved the way they felt on my hands, spilling through my fingers. At the age of six, she gave me thread and needles, and I began stringing beads. She was a master beadwork artist, and made fancy purses for the white ladies that lived in town in Walker, Minnesota.

It was not until a few years ago that I decided to make a career from it. My husband encouraged me to enter a pair of beaded moccasins into the Ojibwe Art Expo, and I won first place in the Beadwork category. I had only sewn for my family, and I had no idea that what I was doing was good enough to get attention.

I played with Barbie dolls until I was 14 years old. I thought it was because I matured late, but actually I loved to make clothing, purses, and jewelry for them. I loved to dress them up. Today I get to make clothing and dress up real people.

Q: What fuels your passions in life?

Art is an individual thing. It is nurtured from within and fed by outside stimuli. I live on the shores of Leech Lake, among the trees. I am content at home because I am surrounded in nature. I travel outside my home to dance at pow-wows and hear traditional songs. I connect with good people. I see new and familiar places. I shop for materials, and then I come home where I create.

No one in the world does what we do as a separate and distinct Nation. It is what makes us who we are as Anishinaabe people. It is not important for outsiders to understand or even know our ways, but it is important that we carry our values with us, to protect our traditions, and to show others our pride in who we are as individuals within a community.


Delina White has received a 5 Wings Council Master Artist Award and an Anishinaabe Arts Initiative fellowship to continue her artwork. Details: iamanishinaabe.com, tinyurl.com/MWPDelinaWhite