Denise Green; Elizabeth Nelson
Denise Green; Elizabeth Nelson

Fashion Agency: Textiles and Power

by J. Edward Anthony

Resplendent, mural-like curtains called thliitsapilthim depict a family’s history among the Indigenous nations known as the Nuu-chah-nulth. Thliitsapilthim and other ceremonial regalia have their beginnings in dreams and visions from the world beyond the horizon. Ḥaa’yuups, also known as Ron Hamilton (an English name that was imposed on him), has painted dozens of thliitsapilthim for Nuu-chah-nulth families. In the 2010 documentary Histakshitl Ts’awaatskwii (We Come from One Root), he says, “These things, and there are many of them—drums, rattles, bowls, spoons, dance robes, poles, feast dishes—they’re connectors that connect [us to] those [past] events, those specific people and their places in history, whether they were 50 years ago or 550 years ago.”

Behind the camera is Denise Nicole Green ’07, Fiber Science and Apparel Design. But viewers of the documentary, codirected by Green and Ḥaa’yuups and available on YouTube, might understandably feel that Ḥaa’yuups is speaking directly to them, there in his home, when he says, “For me, [ceremonial regalia] absolutely are not and never, ever, ever have been art. There’s lots of literature around that talks about ‘the Indian artist Ron Hamilton.’ I ain’t an Indian, and I ain’t an artist. Never have been.”

Fashioning Resistance

Ḥaa’yuups and Green met in 2009, weeks after she moved to Vancouver to start a PhD in anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Green was already attuned to a peculiar power of clothes: the way they let us assert a level of control over who we are and how others perceive us. It’s no accident that superheroes wear costumes. As a Cornell undergrad, Green turned her camera on the spirited youth subcultures of which she herself was a part. Later, as a master’s student, she traveled to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert where she interviewed men who were experimenting with clothing as a way to forge alternatives to normative masculinity.

Ḥaa’yuups, however, showed Green, who is white, how clothing and textiles, particularly thliitsapilthim, are central to Nuu-chah-nulth strategies for resisting a colonial regime and asserting rights to their lands, their history, and their identity. “This is another way to look at us,” Ḥaa’yuups says in Green’s 2018 documentary, Mapping Regalia in Hupacasath Territory. “Looking at us through those thliitsapilthim, [members of our nation] get to see pictures, actual images that represent our ancestors, therefore who we come from. They see pictures or images that are of places on the land and at sea that are our homelands, our territories where we fish and hunt and make a living for ourselves and make a place for our families. They see all that, and they see it as one—, I hope they will be able to see it as one unified whole.”

“I am always conscious of the politics of dress and textiles,” says Green. “The invitation from Ḥaa’yuups to learn about thliitsapilthim has been an incredible privilege.”

Museums as Colonial Institutions

For centuries Nuu-chah-nulth families recorded their histories on massive cedar board screens. Artifacts recovered from the Ozette archaeological site, sometimes called the “Pompeii of the West,” suggests the practice may be more than 450 years old. In the nineteenth century, however, the Canadian government sought to rip apart Indigenous families, political structures, economic systems, and culture. With measures similar to those instituted in the United States, the Canadian government outlawed the Nuu-chah-nulth ceremonies known as potlatches in 1884. So-called Indian agents separated children from their parents and sent them to Indian residential schools far from their families. They also forced Nuu-chah-nulth families out of ma-as, or bighouses, in which extended families lived together and where the cedar board screens stood as constant reminders of a family’s history and status.

Nuu-chah-nulth nations faced extreme social and economic hardships. “There was a rush for spoils,” Ḥaa’yuups says. “Christian churches were demoralizing Nuu-chah-nulth communities, and all sorts of diseases were decimating the community.” Some families, forbidden to use the cedar board screens ceremonially and unable to keep them in the smaller homes where they were forced to live, sold them to museums or private collectors. Some screens were stolen. Today, the American Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Canadian Museum of History, and the Royal British Columbia Museum all hold cedar board screens that record the histories of Nuu-chah-nulth families.

Potlatching was banned from 1884–1952, but the Nuu-chah-nulth nations never stopped. To invoke the histories and ceremonial space that the cedar board screens created, families began to record their histories on sailcloth or muslin. The flexibility of painted cloth meant that thliitsapilthim could be quickly folded and hidden away when an alarm was raised at the approach of an Indian agent.

Green’s work among the Nuu-chah-nulth nations has influenced her goals and research methods. Now director of the Cornell Fashion and Textile Collection, Green says, “I think a lot about how we can decolonize our museums and other colonial institutions. For me, the big questions that face fashion collections are around decolonizing and dismantling white supremacy.”

“For me, the big questions that face fashion collections are around decolonizing and dismantling white supremacy.”

The Cornell Fashion and Textile Collection

A few months after joining the Cornell faculty, Green was invited to oversee the Cornell Fashion and Textile Collection, stylized as CF+TC. “I began to think deeply about what makes a good fashion exhibition,” she says. “How can we stimulate visitors, intellectually and visually? What new things can be learned?”

Green’s exhibitions are exquisitely researched and often grow from collaborations. For Fashion and Feathers, she partnered with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Museum of Vertebrates. “We placed bird study specimens, actual stuffed birds from the Museum of Vertebrate’s collection, alongside garments that had been made with feathers from that same species of bird,” she says. With the Kheel Center at the ILR School, she curated an exhibition about garment workers’ unions.

She has also served as the faculty advisor for student-led exhibitions such as Black Excellence: Fashion that Prevails, Fashion in Transit, and WOMEN EMPOWERED: Fashions from the Frontline. The latter included an iconic judicial collar donated by Ruth Bader Ginsberg ’54. A pair of ragged shoes in the same exhibition garnered nationwide media attention. They were loaned by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wore a hole through one of the soles during her successful 2018 Democratic primary campaign.

“We began with a question: How do clothes empower?” the curators say on the exhibition website. “Now, looking back, perhaps we would revise our original question…and instead turn to what we’ve learned from the amazing women featured in this exhibit: How can we use clothes to empower others?”

“What should be in a university fashion collection? Where does value lie?” Green asks. “For me, it’s in the beauty and artistry, but it’s also in the story a garment tells about a particular place and time, the conditions of its manufacture, and what it meant to the person wearing it. A sweat stain can be a lot more interesting than a Worth gown,” she says, referring to a nineteenth-century designer, Charles Frederick Worth, who dressed European royalty. “Of course, a Worth gown with a sweat stain is even better!”

Material Connections

When Green was still a PhD student, she and Ḥaa’yuups traveled throughout northeastern North America to visit museums and university collections with Nuu-chah-nulth holdings. Like other researchers, Green and Ḥaa’yuups could expect to access special collections not on public display, but they were taken aback by the treatment they received at some institutions.

“Certainly, it’s common for a staff person to be present when researchers are looking at materials. But in a few places we visited, it just felt oppressive and overbearing. Somebody was always looking over our shoulders,” Green says. “During one visit, Ḥaa’yuups removed his glove to touch a carving and was reprimanded. He told the staff person, ‘Touching this is important to me. This treasure is connected to my ancestors.’ But there was no negotiating, and he was forced to wear gloves to handle his own cultural patrimony. It was tragic.”

They concluded their trip with a visit to Ithaca, and Ḥaa’yuups met Green’s undergraduate mentor, Charlotte Jirousek, Fiber Science and Apparel Design. (Jirousek was the curator of Cornell’s collection from 1992 until her death in 2014.) In a busy Ithaca bagel shop, Green and Ḥaa’yuups told Jirousek about how they felt in the museums they had visited. Jirousek explained that the fashion collection at Cornell is a study collection, which means that students are able to handle, though not wear, the garments in the collection. When Ḥaa’yuups asked about the collection’s Native American holdings, he learned there wasn’t much. He offered to donate Nuu-chah-nulth shirts, vests, and other ceremonial clothing from his personal collection.

Ḥaa’yuups came back to Ithaca in 2015 to give a lecture, and he met with undergraduate research assistants at the CF+TC to share details about each item that he had donated. Photographs with his explanations can be seen through CF+TC’s online collections database. Some items are accompanied by poignant stories about their creation and purpose.

“We are privileged that these material stories are part of the fashion archive, and that they are accessible,” Green says. “To be able to handle a garment is so important when you are a student learning design or curating a public exhibit. Historically, so many fashion collections have narrowly focused on a Eurocentric, thin-centric, upper-middle class stereotype of what fashion supposedly looks like. How do we make university collections that don’t reproduce these egregious stereotypes perpetuated by the fashion system? How can we counter that through what we include in fashion collections?”

About Ḥaa’yuups

Ḥaa’yuups is currently co-curator of the multi-year Northwest Coast Hall renovation at the American Museum of Natural History. He owns, and has used at different times, the names Ki-ke-in and Chuuchkamalthnii among many other Nuu-chah-nulth names. Members of the Nuu-chah-nulth nations may be given several names throughout their lives. Ḥaa’yuups does not like being referred to by the imposed English name Ron Hamilton. He went by Chuuchkamalthnii when he and Green made Histakshitl Ts’awaatskwii (We Come from One Root) and when he donated clothing to CF+TC. Visitors to CF+TC’s online catalogue database may find Nuu-chah-nulth items in the collection by searching for “Chuuchkamalthnii.”