Fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail denies ‘false allegation’ of artistic theft
Friday, April 29, 2022
By Acee Agoyo
One of Indian Country’s most well-known fashion designers is under fire after unveiling a collection that bears striking similarities to another Native artist’s work.
With a new series of products, Bethany Yellowtail sought to draw attention to “inspiring” Indigenous women from around the world. But controversy quickly arose on Thursday after Wakeah Jhane pointed out that the commercial designs closely follows the work that she developed two years ago to support Native women and Native families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“White owned corporations stealing indigenous designs is offensive but an indigenous company stealing from a native artist is a whole new level of disrespect and does not uplift me as an indigenous artist in the slightest,” Jhane, an award-winning artist who is Comanche, Kiowa and Blackfeet, wrote in a widely-read post on social media.
Jhane’s 2020 work depicts Native women in culturally identifiable appearances. One figure, for example, represents a Pueblo person in a traditional dress while another shows a Native Hawaiian woman with a floral headpiece. A third features an individual with a facial tattoo, a cultural tradition seen among indigenous peoples from California to New Zealand to Alaska.
The female-presenting figures otherwise lack defined facial features, a stylistic detail that runs throughout Jhane’s ledger art pieces, which she has been creating for more than a decade.
The pieces were part of a collaboration that was gifted to Native birthing families by the Daybreak Star Doulas program at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Washington state. Images and posters of Jhane’s work were also free to download during a time when many people were separated from their loved ones due to social distancing protocols and other COVID-19 measures.
“Decolonizing means inclusivity, not learning the white mans way of business and in turn using it against your own people and community,” Jhane wrote in her social media post on Thursday.
“From Our Founder”: Statement by Bethany Yellowtail
On April 29, 2022, fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail issued a statement, denying a “false allegation” that her company stole the work of another Native artist.
But Yellowtail, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who also claims ties to the Crow Tribe, is strongly denying that her company stole another Native artist’s work. In a statement on Friday morning, she refuted the “false allegation” made against the 2022 collection, which she said was based on an “original art piece” created by her “in house graphic designer.”
“With my creative direction, the piece in question was also inspired by a long history of Indigenous artwork involving faceless character figures,” wrote Yellowtail, whose celebrated fashion designs have been subjected to appropriation by non-Natives in the past, ever since she debuted her first major line more than seven years ago.
“There are many teachings across our tribal communities about this artistic style. For Crow & Cheyenne women we are taught not to put faces on some cultural art,” Yellowtail said in an attempt to link the technique used for the new collection to her own tribal teachings.
“Our traditional dolls and other figures of our women have no faces,” Yellowtail added. “We see ourselves in them, they hold us, hold our secrets and protect us.”
A social media post on April 28, 2022, announced the new @byellowtail collection as a “celebration of Indigenous activists from around the globe.” Comments have since been removed from the post following calls for Bethany Yellowtail to address allegations of theft from another Native artist. Comments that had been shared on the post are no longer visible, and replies to those comments from @byellowtail are no longer visible either.
Yellowtail otherwise did not directly address the visual and thematic similarities between her company’s products and those created by Jhane. The commonalities, though, are striking, as both depict a series of Indigenous women in culturally-specific clothing and appearances — even down to the facial tattoos seen on one figure and the elk-tooth dress on another.
One slight difference, however, is in the number of female figures. The B.Yellowtail company’s “Celebrating Indigenous Women” collection features seven while Jhane’s had five.
Additionally, the byellowtail.com website urges buyers to meet “7 Inspiring, Indigenous Women from across the globe.” The list includes a Laguna Pueblo woman — Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet and who wore a traditional Pueblo dress when she was sworn into the U.S. Congress, as well as the late Haunani-Kay Trask, a Native Hawaiian activist who was often photographed wearing a floral headpiece.
And in a separate post via Instagram’s story feature, Yellowtail on Friday promised to reveal more about the collection, while repeating her denial of stealing from another Native artist.
Neither the statement, nor the subsequent story, mentioned Jhane — whose surname is Myers — by name even though the pair have collaborated in the past.
On April 29, 2022, fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail issued a statement, denying a “false allegation” that her company stole the work of another Native artist. Comments on the @byellowtail post on Instagram have been limited, allowing the account to prevent criticism of the company and of Yellowtail. A similar post on Facebook also limits interaction.
Yellowtail also did not identify the graphic designer by name in her “founder” statement but her company’s website states that the collection is based on “Original Artwork by Diana Quiroz.” In the Instagram story, she said her graphic designer is an “Indigenous Woman” but did not state which Indigenous community or communities Quiroz comes from.
In her post on Thursday, Jhane highlighted online interactions that led her to believe Yellowtail and Quiroz were, at the very least, aware of her prior work, if not outright inspired by it. Yellowtail, using a personal account on Instagram, had liked Jhane’s 2020 post featuring the original image of the five women.
Yellowtail has since hidden the personal account, whose handle comes from her name in the Cheyenne language.
Quiroz — whose social media bio includes a common word from the Nahuatl language — also used to follow Jhane’s account on Instagram. She has since made her account private.
But with her statement, Yellowtail confirmed some of these prior interactions. She acknowledged that Jhane contacted her company “six weeks ago” with concerns about the new collection — after “witnessing the behind-the-scenes photoshoot from my close friends list on my own personal Instagram.”
Still, Yellowtail appeared more concerned with her company being criticized publicly than with Jhane, whose post had merely asked for an acknowledgment of the prior work. “Inspired by Wakeah Jhane” would’ve sufficed,” the latter wrote.
“We can all do well without tearing each other down,” Yellowtail wrote in her statement, in what appeared to be a dig at Jhane for coming forward. “There is enough room out there for us all.”
Despite Yellowtail’s considerable following, both online and offline, sentiment on social media has strongly favored Jhane. Through numerous posts, dozens of Native people, mostly women, have expressed support for the creator of the 2020 images, with many saying the “Birth Affirmations” collaboration with the Daybreak Star Doulas remains easily recognizable — even to this day — to anyone in Indian Country.
Social media reaction to Wakeah Jhane coming forward about her dealings with a Native-owned fashion company was swift and supportive.
Many users also expressed disappointment with Yellowtail for limiting interactions on her company’s social media platforms amid calls for greater accountability within Indian art and fashion circles. The April 28 post announcing the new collection has had all comments removed, even replies that were posted by the @byellowtail account itself.
Before being removed, the comments were critical of Yellowtail for not acknowledging the similarities between her collection and Jhane’s work. The now-missing replies from the @byellowtail account hinted of the statement that was eventually released on Friday
“hello, this piece was in fact not copied by another artist, by any means!” one reply read. “This is an original piece designed to tell a unique story of Indigenous Women Activists we admire,” another stated.
The April 29 post on Instagram denying the theft allegation has limited who can respond — so far, only comments favorable to Yellowtail have been accepted. On Facebook, the statement from Yellowtail also limits interactions, even as it contains a link to purchase the t-shirt featuring the contested design.
“Shop This Photo,” the post reads, with the price of the “Indigenous Activist Tee” easily visible to users.
U.S. Department of the Interior: Secretary Deb Haaland on supporting Indian artists and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act
Allegations of theft, as well as cultural appropriation, are common in Indian art and fashion circles — although complaints typically center on non-Natives benefiting from the work of Native creators. In 2015, Yellowtail saw one of her inaugural clothing designs on the fashion runway of another company.
“It’s one thing for designers to be unoriginal and knock off other peoples designs but what happens when you blatantly take cultural valuable designs from Indigenous people?” Yellowtail wrote in a post on Instagram that no longer appears to be online.
Native artists and designers usually have little recourse to protect their original works, beyond pursuing copyright and trademarks claims against outsiders. Even tribal governments face difficulty safeguarding their cultural heritage — it took litigation from the Navajo Nation for a large fashion company to stop using the “Navajo” name on the commercial market.
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act, first enacted in 1990, represents one of the few ways in which the federal government can protect the livelihoods of Native creators. But the law only comes into play when non-Natives misrepresent their products and even then, enforcement against non-Natives has been rare.
“Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, it is illegal to market art or craft products in a manner that falsely suggests it is Native American produced if it is not,” Secretary Deb Halaand said in a video last year, after she took office as the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior.
Later in the year, the Department of Justice announced federal charges against two people who were misrepresenting works being sold on the commercial market. The criminal cases against Lewis Anthony Rath and Jerry Chris Van Dyke, also known as Jerry Witten, are ongoing in federal court in western Washington.
In 2020, Jawad Khalaf and Nashat Khalaf were sentenced for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in a criminal case prosecuted in New Mexico. They admitted they sold items that they falsely marketed as being Native produced.
As part of their punishment, the defendants agreed to pay $300,000 to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board at the Interior Department to “promote the economic development of Native Americans and Alaska Natives through the expansion of the Indian arts and crafts market.” They also forfeited more than $288,000 that had been seized from their businesses.
Another defendant, Taha Shawar, remains a fugitive. He was operating a business in Colorado as part of the fraudulent Indian art scheme, according to federal prosecutors.