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Indigenous activism and design had a strong presence off the red carpet at Cannes

 Models show off Indigenous fashion at Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival.
Allison Herrera
Models show off Indigenous fashion at Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival.

Indigenous fashion design — both traditional and modern — made a big splash on the red carpet during the premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon at the 76th annual Cannes Film Festival. Indigenous design and activism had a strong presence off the red carpet, too.

Dante Biss-Grayson ducked in and out of fitting rooms on the second floor of the Hôtel Barrière Le Gray d'Albion’s terrace as models put finishing touches on their makeup and hair to get ready for their turn on the runway at the Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival.

Biss-Grayson, wearing his signature white cowboy hat and wrapped braids, was making sure things were just so; even down to where the live violinist would stand on the runway.

Along with debuting a new line of clothes featuring sequins, colorful ribbon tops, lace and jackets with Osage designs, Biss-Grayson was showcasing part of history.

The first part of his runway show was a tribute to victims of the Osage murders.

Images of Henry Roan and Anna Kyle Brown, two of the many victims of the murders, along with newspaper articles, the FBI files and a poem in Osage Biss-Grayson wrote took the runway at the International Indigenous Fashion week show in the south of France last week during the Cannes Film Festival.

The capes are from a line called Honor Series: For the Reign of Terror Fashion For a Cause by Dante Biss-Grayson, who is the creator of Sky-Eagle Collection. When asked about the balance he struck between commercializing images of the victims and raising awareness.

"So, I grew up with the reign of terror…the Killers of the Flower Moon and being able to express and externalize the trauma and the pain in a way that, you know, acknowledges the occurrence of it," Biss-Grayson told KOSU.

Indigenous design on an international stage

Biss-Grayson is a descendant of Henry Roan. Roan’s murder is described in the non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann and was depicted in the film that premiered over the weekend to critical acclaim at Cannes.

The capes featuring the images of Roan, Brown and others are not for sale. Biss-Grayson created them only to bring attention to what happened. He thinks the movie will do that too.

"This whole movement of the movie by Martin Scorsese, it's got to open up a lot of wounds," he said.

He also hopes it will get non-Native people to talk about the history and acknowledge it.

This isn't the first time Biss-Grayson has created a line to bring attention to an issue — he's also had fashion lines that raise awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. As a veteran, fashion design was initially a way for him to cope with PTSD.

"So the Sky Eagle collection, the fashion house I co-founded with my wife, we take on a lot of critical issues impacting Indian Country, building these platforms to bring awareness, but also to inspire action," said Biss-Grayson.

 A still from the Honor Collection. The last cape is a poem written by Dante and is translated into Osage
Allison Herrera
Dante Biss-Grayson's Honor Series was unveiled at the Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival. The cape on the right features a poem written by the designer, and is translated into the Osage language.

‘We’re real and we’re here’

International Indigenous Fashion Week is the creation of Chelsa Racette, who is Cree from the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan.

The show at Cannes featured seven designers — three from the United States, three from Canada and one from the Philippines.

Racette said it was just a coincidence that she happened to have her fashion week during the world premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon. But, having the fashion week at Cannes was intentional. She told KOSU it was about making a statement about Hollywood, who she feels still misrepresents Native people.

"You know, Indigenous people are romanticized and sensationalized by Hollywood. And we just want to let everybody know that we're real, and we're here, and we're not going anywhere," she said. 

Indigenous representation has gotten better in some ways. Scorsese's depiction of the tragic and brutal chapter in Osage history has been getting praise. Television shows like Reservation Dogs, Dark Winds and Rutherford Falls have also received critical acclaim.

But that's not always been the case with how Hollywood treats Native people. Last year's blockbuster Avatar: The Way of Water directed by James Cameron was fiercely criticized for its stereotypical depiction of Indigenous people.

Models wear designs by Ally's Ribbons at the Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival.
Allison Herrera
Models wear designs by Ally's Ribbons at the Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival.

Racette said it was incredible to see the Indigenous cast of Killers of the Flower Moon take the red carpet wearing traditional and modern Native fashion. Indeed, all the Indigenous actors who took the runway wore jewelry, Osage blankets and dresses that turned the sparkle on Indigenous fashion.

"You know, we've come a long way as Indigenous designers…we're not all like, skins and feathers,” she said.

Indigenous fashion design today mixes political commentary, activism and traditional designs — like ribbon and beadwork and sometimes, yes, feathers and buckskins. It all speaks to the nuance and complexity designers have in their tool kit to express their experiences as Indigenous people.

Victor Baguilat Jr. is a fashion designer from the Philippines. His collection featured hand woven fabrics from the mountainous regions of his home country.

"It's called Ifugao, specifically in the mountainous villages…so we have the elders doing a lot of their hand woven fabric," said Baguilat Jr.

And like Biss-Grayson, Baguilat Jr. wants to use this platform and his work in fashion to empower Indigenous people back in his home county.

"So we want to showcase how the artisans and the creatives here in North America are actually supporting each other," he said. "So hopefully back in the Philippines, we can also do the same thing."

The rest of the Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival featured Biss-Grayson's earrings, coats and shoes.

"It's for the new warriors, men and women in this modern world," said Biss-Grayson, referring to his current line. 

Highlighting resilience

Biss-Grayson wants everyone to enjoy and wear his work. That's why the rest of his runway collection featured dresses with sequins, Indigenous patterns and color — lots and lots of color.

"They're lawyers, they're politicians, and they want a dash of couture. They want a dash of red carpet or dash of a gala, but also want Indigenous design in there," Biss-Grayson said.

Highlighting the resilience of Indigenous people through fashion reinforces the theme on this international stage: Indigenous people are here, and Indigenous people are thriving.

Sarah Faye Deer, a Muscogee citizen who flew from Oklahoma to model in Biss-Grayson's show, was enjoying the excitement and buzz around the movie as well as the fashion show with people from all over.

"I feel like an Indigenous goddess," she said.

More info on the designers at International Indigenous Fashion Week can be found here:

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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