Symbolizing her memories of home and the natural beauty surrounding her community, Adrienne Benjamin’s hand-beaded designs for this hat collection tell a familial story of past, present, and future. "My art is important to me because through it and through me, pieces of my culture and the experiences of my people carry forward," says the artist, when asked about what her work means to her. "Creating for me brings so much joy and has always been a part of my life since I can remember." In the interview below, Adrienne tells us more about how she expresses her creativity, the inspiration behind this collection’s launch, and her perspectives on Indigenous culture in the fashion world today.
Please share a bit about your Native American background. Which tribe(s) do you belong to? Where is your tribe originally located? What do you want people to know about your tribe?
Misi-zaaga’iganing indoonjibaa. Chiminising indaa. Awaazisii indoodem.
I come from the Big Island community of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, located near the settlement of Isle in Minnesota. My tribe is known as the non-removable Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe due to the fact that they resisted forced removal efforts by local authorities and the federal government to remain on the lands that they still reside on today.
How would you describe the type of art you do?
I consider myself a multifaceted artist. My art encompasses traditional cultural teachings and interweaves my present day experiences into each piece that I create. Whether it be an acrylic painting, beadwork, a jingle dress, or an upcycled piece; I’m constantly inspired by the world around me and the memories of those who passed their knowledge to me and who ever so lovingly fostered my talents and believed in me.
Where do you create your pieces? And can you describe your creative process?
Most of the time, I create the piece in my mind while I’m shopping for supplies or if I see something in particular that strikes me. When I’m bead shopping, I have a project in mind and I’ll decide on colors and run with it. If it’s fabric or upcycling, I’ll see something and immediately get a theme or idea in my head about what it may remind me of and start to build the project out from that. My mom and I work together a lot – she has a saying that we constantly laugh at to this day. She says, “I don’t see it, but I’ve learned to trust you and your vision even if I can’t see those colors going together right now.” Then by the time we finish the project she loves it and is amazed. It’s a fun process.
Who inspired you and taught you how to bead? What’s your favorite thing about creating beadwork?
Growing up, there were sporadic classes and sometimes after school offerings where mentors from our community would come in and offer different artistic opportunities for Native youth, or a traditional skills camp on the weekends. I would say my first taste of beadworking came from those experiences. From there, it was trial and error, watching others, learning, and listening when elders would talk or absorbing knowledge when other artists in my community would share it. Beading is something that you definitely improve at with time.
Can you describe the symbolism behind the colors and materials that you worked with to create these three hat styles for Minnetonka?
For this particular project I wanted to stick with three colors per idea and really let them do the work. I often find myself looking for simplicity in a lot of my work. I really love coming up with simple color ways that speak simply but work intricately with one another.
The green beaded hat represents the lush woodlands of Chiminising near Mille Lacs. I grew up playing in the woods and for me this color scheme really brings me back to that.
The blue beaded hat represents the waters of Misi-zaaga’iganing. (Mille Lacs Lake) This lake is everything to the people of Mille Lacs and it was a main reason that our people chose to call this area home.
The red beaded hat represents the colors of the incredible sunsets that I’ve witnessed on Misi-Zaaga’iganing (Mille Lacs Lake) while out fishing or walking with my family near my home.
What made you want to collaborate with Minnetonka? What do you hope the outcome of this collaboration is?
I think that collaborating on this specific artistic effort with Minnetonka is more of a testament on their part that they are serious about leveraging their light, and following through on the efforts that we together have set out to do in featuring and working with Indigenous artists to raise visual representation, educate about Native art and appropriation, and to give artists opportunities through these launches.
I know that this launch will be the first of many in collaboration with Minnetonka, and that it will grow followers, appreciation for Native cultural artistry, and heightened financial opportunities for the artists involved.
Where do you see Native American culture in the fashion world today? How do you hope to see it in the future?
Honestly, I see it everywhere. Southwest Indigenous designs have been popular now for quite some time. Most often seen pre-pandemic in festival wear like at Coachella or Burning Man as examples. Folks dressing in headdresses, moccasins, or clothing with southwest design – but none of these items were actually designed or contributed to by Indigenous designers or artists. Instead of having an understanding of the deeper meaning of these items, or purchasing them directly from Native artists, they are just “fashion” and make the wearer feel a sense of mystical value because of the misrepresentation of Native Americans throughout history in this country.
I hope to see high end designers hiring Indigenous culture bearers and artists to collaborate, elevate, and create authentic and culturally inspired items directly from the sources. I hope that the general public can gain a deeper understanding of the meaning behind these designs, items, and the customs from which they originated.
How do you want people to feel while wearing your designs?
I want people to feel proud of their purchase knowing that they are supporting an Indigenous artist whose art is handmade, whose skillset came from long lines of ancestral artistry, and to know that their purchase is also supporting a larger movement of valuing and supporting Native art and artists in contemporary settings.
I want people to value the art, the time that it takes to create their one-of-a-kind handmade item, and to become educated about the artist, their tribe, and the history of those people.
I’m not Native American. Is it appropriate for me to wear Native American designs?
When it comes to fashion, buying directly from an Indigenous designer is always best. You will be supporting their artistry, traditional knowledge, and even their community through that purchase. It also helps to learn about the tribe of the artist that you are purchasing from. If asked about the artistic fashion item while wearing it, you can then raise the bar of understanding and educate others about the history of those tribal people and even the lands on which the item may have been made.
There are many unique tribes within the stolen lands of the United States whose items and designs may hold many different meanings. Usually, an artist will not sell an item if there is sacred or religious meaning behind it – as those items should never be for sale as they usually are familial and tribal heirlooms meant to be passed down from generation to generation. These are also items that people from outside of these tribal communities should never possess unless they were gifted to that individual, which would be an extremely rare occurrence for a non-Native person.