I Am Anishinaabe: Ojibwe Women Seek New Horizons While Honoring Tradition

Photo/Hunt + Capture

Clothing—what we wear—has always been an essential expression of culture in Indian Country. For many Tribes, their items of clothing have stories that are as unique as their history. They reveal the legacies of ancestors through their creativity, abilities and the resources that were available to them. As new materials were introduced, new ideas and concepts were created setting trends and preferences that are showcased at museums throughout the world and still preferred to this day in Indian Country.

Photo/Hunt + Capture
Photo/Hunt + Capture

The trends that were set generations ago reflect many significant values beyond monetary value; they reflect family, heritage, and appreciation for all of creation. Due to the forced assimilation of American Indian people to abandon their culture, many trends and traditions of times past were simply forgotten. The artwork, languages, and traditions slowly died, but as of lately many traditions are being revived and preferred once again. Many artists are finding their way into archives throughout the hemisphere to search for their people’s long-lost traditions so they may reintroduce them to their communities to appreciate again.

Delina White, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Member, has carried a vision that has been a lifetime in the making—passing her cultural knowledge, abilities, and traditions onto the next generation. She’s an award-winning artist specializing in Anishinaabe floral beadwork, sewing, jewelry-making, and so much more. She’s a grandmother, mother, wife, teacher, organizer, writer, champion jingle-dress dancer, and business owner.

Several years ago she launched I Am Anishinaabe, a business featuring her vision to expand Anishinaabe patterns and clothing with her daughters to share with the wider world. I Am Anishinaabe features the creations of Delina White and her two daughters Lavender Hunt and Sage Davis. Together they showcase the unique and beautiful artwork of the Anishinaabe people. Their work has been showcased at some of the most prestigious American Indian art markets in the country as well as various museums and galleries throughout the Midwest.

Here, three generations of Anishinaabe women—Delina White, her daughters Lavender Hunt, Sage Davis and her granddaughter Nookwakwii “Snowy” White—share their stories through cultural lenses on how their creations and dedication to family carry on their legacy and heritage.

The Vision Maker: Delina White

Photo/Hunt + Capture
Photo/Hunt + Capture

Achieving goals can take a lifetime.

A member and resident of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Delina’s memories from her upbringing are vivid. She recalls her small home with two bedrooms and without running water or electricity in Onigum, Minnesota. Some of her best memories include walking the paths and trails of the “old ones” with many of her cousins. As long as she can remember she was surrounded by loved ones in the environment where her people have thrived for generations.

Delina has been sewing, beading and creating various items since she was six years old. She was taught by her grandmother Maggie King. She recalls that her passion has always been art, but was directed towards business by her mother, Kathleen Headbird. It was after 20 years of pursuing higher education that she received her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in management and management information systems. Before that, she graduated from the Barbizon School of Modeling in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the age of 16 and since has had a burning interest in fashion, modeling, and the industry. It was only becoming that she combined her love for her heritage and fashion into a business.

After influencing her daughters to bead, sew and create other materials, their work developed to represent each artist. And with growing recognition for their elaborate creations, Delina was able to experience her 25-year vision become a reality when she decided to pursue art full-time.

With the support of her family and loved ones, she formed her own business I Am Anishinaabe.

Delina expresses she is fascinated with her people’s history, which is why she strives to incorporate her traditional cultural patterns into her work. This is likely why she has been in high-demand for as long as she can remember. Her patterns in her beadwork resemble those of her grandmother. “To this day, I create from what I remember of my grandmother Maggie’s style of pattern onto bags and other garments,” says Delina White. “As I continue to research the Anishinaabeg and other Great Lakes Nations, it makes me happy that I am Anishinaabe, which we all share the heritage, culture, and history of all of these beautiful people and our history.”

When creating, Delina adores fabrics and aims to not limit her creations to only include materials before the arrival of Europeans. So, like many artists, what is appealing to her eventually makes its way into her items. She has been a student of fashion and appreciates many aspects of fashion including cultural influences on style.

“I love all fabrics from the complex and royal brocades, smooth and rich satins, cool cotton and linens, to the utilitarian, functional wools combined with exotic ribbons from the Indies,” she says. “I love the indigenous gemstones from the earth and its fine and rare form to its imperfect cloudy state. I am inspired how Native people have incorporated things that were necessary, accessible, and beautiful into their items of clothes and jewelry. How our people developed individual styles depending on what was available to them is inspiring to me. Knowing the story of why our people used copper, wampum, bells, coins, and mirrors are why I choose to incorporate those items into my pieces as well.”

Because of Delina’s passion for her people’s art and its history of incorporating diverse materials into their creations, she has been driven to continue with her creations in a similar manner. Each item has a story, a history, and a purpose.

“It is extremely rewarding being able to work with my daughters,” says Delina. “We have a strong, close relationship where we understand each other and how we work individually and collectively, allowing us to pursue I Am Anishinaabe. As a family, we have had some very beautiful experiences in sharing our culture and pursuing our art.”

I Am Anishinaabe is the brand of Delina White featuring collaborations with her daughters Lavender Hunt and Sage Davis. Together they have represented I Am Anishinaabe at the world-renowned Santa Fe Indian Market and have been selected to showcase their artwork at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian among a few select artists for the 2017 Native Art Market in Washington, D.C.

With a strong entrance into the arts industry, the future of I Am Anishinaabe is promising. Collectively, orders for commissions by individual clients are well over a year into the future and have been for quite some time says Delina. She hopes to showcase additional creations by planning and organizing various fashion shows throughout the United States and is open to collaborating with communities, venues, and other designers to take Native fashion to the masses.

Miskwa-zenibaakwe, Red Ribbon Woman: Lavender Hunt

Photo/Hunt + Capture
Photo/Hunt + Capture

Lavender Hunt comes from a long line of strong Anishinaabe women. She’s a daughter, mother, sister, jingle-dress dancer, teacher, seamstress and bead artist from Onigum, Minnesota.

She started beading and sewing when she was seven years old. Her inspirations are many including not only her grandmother and mother, but her father, Gerald White and many of her relatives who have all guided her along her journey.

“I initially started beading and sewing to dress the dolls I played with as a little girl,” says Lavender Hunt. “My mother and grandmother always took us to ceremony and powwow, so the attire I saw those women wear was beautiful to me. I wanted my dolls to emulate the beauty I saw as a little girl.”

Today, Lavender’s creations are a must-have among many. From jingle-dresses to ribbon skirts, her work wows people with her combination of materials and attention to detail. Everywhere she goes, she shares her stories of her creations, often giving away her skirts to make others feel beautiful, loved and to carry her stories to others.

Though her creations are heirloom pieces, Lavender says she strives to teach the next generation of girls to create starting with making jewelry to sewing ribbon skirts. In fact, she does just this Monday through Friday as a Cultural Advisor at the Deer River High School in Deer River, Minnesota. She works with high school girls and teaches them not only to sew and bead but the role those items play to themselves individually and to their community.

Lavender continuously teaches the next generation of girls to make ribbon skirts because that’s what was emphasized by her grandmother. “I focus on the ribbon skirt because my grandmother taught me to always wear my ribbon skirt,” she says. “Healing comes from Mother Earth, and the skirt radiates in the way Mother Earth does. That’s why we teach women to make them and how to wear them on everyday occasions. We have ceremony skirts, round dance skirts, dating skirts, everyday work skirts, skirts with meaning. The colors we use all have meaning.”

“Whenever I teach our young girls, I strive to teach them the lesson behind what they are making to empower them, so they know we come from a strong line of women,” says Lavender. “Everything I was taught while growing up was to prepare us for mino-bimadiziwin: a good way of life. Living a good way of life is being happy and pursuing success. Success is being happy.”

Lavender’s goal is to make sure her grandmother’s teachings continue. “I want to empower women,” says Lavender. “Women are supposed to support one another, and this was something I heard my grandmother say repeatedly.”

“Creating for others is all about giving people a sense of self-identity,” Lavender explains. “Understanding what people’s likes are and what is important to them is the biggest part of creating for others. When I get to know someone, I often stop and pray for what I’m creating for them because I want everyone to be proud of what they wear, like our ancestors did.”

Lavender looks to her culture to teach others.

“My culture is about a beautiful way of life, and it’s all-encompassing,” she says. “They include physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and being able to give to others, for me, includes all aspects of this, which is why I love to create. No matter where the person comes from, if they know the story of my creations, they all grow to love and appreciate what we were able to create together.”

Lavender’s goal one day is to pass on to her children the ability to create, sew, and bead so that they can represent their family, culture, and community to others contributing to the revival and pride of a once oppressed culture.

Above all, Lavender strives to be a positive role model for her family, for her people and others, much the same way her grandmother was to her.

“Growing up in Onigum, I thought we were wealthy in our knowledge and way of life, and my grandmother constantly reinforced that, and she is the main reason I do what I do today. I want to inspire all of our people that we all come from beautiful people that have a rich history.”

Educating by way of Art, Culture: Sage Davis

Photo/Hunt + Capture
Photo/Hunt + Capture

Sage is an award-winning bead artist who’s been practicing her craft for more than twenty years. Creating since she was six years old, Sage Davis is no stranger to expressing herself creatively. She grew up in Onigum with her mother Delina and her sister Lavender, who were her inspirations to learn to create. As long as she can remember she has had an outlet whether that be through journaling, beading, sewing or drawing and recalls her first creations being beads strung together to make earrings.

She states most importantly about her journey is her passion for teaching others and is able to accomplish this through both her art and her career.

She uses a variety of materials to represent her people’s way of life and culture. Highly educated, she’s already achieved her bachelor’s and is pursuing her Masters in Education at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Currently, she recruits for the American Indian Studies program at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Sage is an educator by day, an artist when she makes time. She strives to inspire the next generation to continue to higher education and relates her upbringing and culture to inspire Native people to accomplish all they can. She says her art has been an important role in educating because she is able to talk about her culture through her art. Through her people’s oral traditions does she express that her people have persevered and hopes other Native people can look to their heritage as well for inspiration.

“My creations have given me the happiest moments of my life,” says Sage. “I recall some of the saddest moments of my life when I wasn’t creating, but through that self-awareness do I realize where I come from and how important it is for me to create and aspire to teach others cultural and family pride.”

“When reflecting on my personal life, I realize those difficult moments where I wasn’t creating were a result of my life being disrupted,” Sage says. “I lost my father some years ago, and I didn’t create for the longest time and creating helped me heal. Creating for me brings balance. Every time I create, I feel I heal. This is something our people have been doing for generations, and I want to inspire others to realize this as well—that we can all accomplish amazing things.”

She approaches each piece with honor and has been recognized professionally for it. One of her most prized moments was her first submission to the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2016 where she submitted a fully beaded cape in the Contemporary Beadwork category and was awarded 2nd place.

“Being recognized for something I’ve been doing my whole life is such a thrill,” says Sage. “My art, of course, is an expression of who I am and I want people to look at my work and know that certain pieces are mine. I want my work to give people a sense of pride and empowerment in themselves and realize we are all talented in our ways.”

Although able to boast an impressive art career, she says her art isn’t entirely who she is. She has goals to one day become a professor and to incorporate her art into her educational work. She aspires to teach at the collegiate level and to always honor her family, her heritage and her community to instill pride, knowledge, and appreciation for the Anishinaabe people.

Combining her passion to teach through both her creations and her career, Sage aspires to inspire students of all ages and backgrounds to take pride in culture and people that were once oppressed by both federal policy and religious creed. She is a living embodiment of inspiration pushing boundaries and creating along the way motivating wherever she goes.

Nookwakwii “Snowy” White

Photo/Hunt + Capture
Photo/Hunt + Capture

Snowy is the first granddaughter of Delina and Gerald White and comes from a long line of strong women. She’s the daughter of Lavender Hunt as well as a sister, jingle-dress dancer, student, and multi-talented artist. She beads, paints, draws, models, sings and sews. At only 12 years of age, she already has won numerous old-style Jingle Dress contests on the powwow trail and was the previous Powwow Princess for several communities.

She credits her mother for teaching and inspiring her to create with honor, love, and passion. Representing a strong line of Anishinaabe women, she dances in the way her grandmother, mother and relatives dance—to honor those before, present and yet to come. She aspires to one day create extensively in the way her relatives do.

Taught to bead by her mother Lavender, she says she creates daily. Whether that be earrings for friends, medallions for relatives, or headbands for herself, she aims to make people happy, proud and wants people to be grateful for what she can create.

“When I see people happy with what I’ve made for them, it makes me feel wonderful,” says Snowy. “That feeling of making someone else happy is why I choose to create and inspires me to want to improve what I do. One day, I’d like to make an entire dance outfit for my family.”

When seeking inspirations in creating, she looks to her family, to whom she’s creating for, and even to Mother Nature. Much like her ancestors, she is inspired by her surroundings and hopes to capture natural beauty in her work. Her work features many of our relatives including four-legged, birds, fish, plants and even sunsets.

“When I create something, my mother taught me to always have a good mood,” Snowy says. “I want people to be inspired and to know that all good thoughts and prayers went into what I’m making.”

And like any other artist, the most challenging aspect of creating for Snowy is her time. A full- time student at Deer River High School, she struggles to balance her time. Between dancing, traveling, creating, studying, and her siblings, her time is high-demand. She says, however, if something needs to be done that she makes time.

“Dancing taught her to be determined, focused, and dependable,” says her mother, Lavender Hunt. “She understands her role in her family, her school and her community. So, she understands at a very early age of what it means to have responsibility.”

With an already blessed upbringing with strong support from her family and loved ones, it is inspiring to envision what the future looks like for Snowy. She says that one day, she wants to study medicine.

“I feel my creations carry on the traditions of my family,” says Snowy. “One day I’d like people to desire outfits and work made by me, like my mother, aunt Sage, and grandmother Delina.”

Delina beams with pride in her granddaughter Snowy and her ability to dance, create and represent her family with humility and pride. Upon admiring her ability to create with such elaborate detail, she expressed that it won’t be long before she’s creating for I Am Anishinaabe.

Photo/Hunt + Capture
Photo/Hunt + Capture

A New Horizon

Seeing I Am Anishinaabe become a reality is a dream come true says Delina. Having her family involved makes the journey more rewarding than she could have ever imagined, but the future has high aims. Taking work to another level requires risk, sacrifice, and challenges. With desires to have her work showcased at some prestigious venues, fashion shows, and markets internationally, Delina is dedicated to showcasing her people’s way of life and its history of inclusion, creativity, and respect for all things.

Running a business of any sort has many challenges, and an art business is no exception. In fact, an art business is as daunting as creating. Showcasing American Indian culture through fashion has gained momentum in the last generation due to many reasons. Other American Indian designers are showcasing their culture through fashion, and the general public is becoming more aware of these unique approaches to fashion. But like many other barriers that American Indian people face, I Am Anishinaabe also faces those same challenges of access to capital, marketing, promoting, selling, maintaining inventory, and generating new clients.

But they are dedicated to finding ways to grow and share their culture. Their dedication to sharing their work is why they have come so far. They’ve been awarded various national grants to continue to develop and highlight their work and will continue to pursue other competitive opportunities. With support, they hope to take their work to an international level and to produce at a higher rate so that more can be proud of their Anishinaabe creations.

It is no wonder why their work is sought after by countless people beyond borders. They incorporate not only exquisite materials into their creations but their love, tradition and extreme attention to all that encompasses an item as well as a person. Taking their work to some of the most prestigious markets, showcases, and galleries, they intend on continuing with their journey. For those interested in finding their work, contacting either Delina, Lavender or Sage please visit their website iamanishinaabe.com.

You can find Delina, Lavender, Sage, and Snowy on social media, on the powwow trail, or tune in via their website. Keep a close eye on these trailblazing women as they empower, amaze and revive a nearly lost tradition.