From his booth at the Stanford Powwow, a blue canopy stocked with dad hats, beanies, hoodies and t-shirts in soft pinks, yellows, greens, and blues, Joey Montoya is hustling. Montoya, a twenty-five-year-old Lipan Apache, is the owner of Urban Native Era, a fashion brand based in San Francisco. He wears a faded, buttery yellow tee, the left breast of which reads “You are on Native Land”; on the back, the words “Natives by the Bay” encircle an emblem of the Golden Gate. The shirt’s pastel palette is popular with California kids embracing laidback alternatives to the souped-up pleather gym chic coming out of most New York streetwear boutiques. iPhone hooked up to a mobile charger slipped into his back pocket, Montoya makes small talk as he runs my card through Square; he looks every inch the start-up millennial. My girlfriend and I purchase two dad hats made of washed gray denim: one embroidered with a killer whale on its crown and the other with a hummingbird that looks suspiciously similar to Flit, the ruby-throated hummingbird who befriends Pocahontas in the Disney film. To make sure I don’t get it twisted, Montoya clarifies that the hummingbird is one of three animals in the local Ohlone peoples’ creation story. I also cop the “Natives by the Bay” shirt Joey is wearing, in black.
Every Mother’s Day weekend, Native people from the Bay Area and beyond gather in a dusty Eucalyptus grove on Stanford University’s campus for an annual celebration of Indigenous song and dance. Attendees don their finest regalia: moccasins stitched with tri-cut beads that sparkle like gems when they catch the light, shawls sewn with neon fringes that sway like prairie grass to the rhythm of the drum, long headpieces fashioned from porcupine quills and topped with eagle feathers, spinning like tops to the song. Amateur and mostly non-Native photographers flock to the event to capture the perfect shot of the Indian they have in mind: in buckskin and beads, wearing braids and feathers. Seven years ago, back when I was on the powwow circuit, one of these shutterbugs snapped a picture of me in my regalia looking as stoic as an Edward Curtis portrait. On the internet, someone made the photo into a meme. It read: “Keep Calm and Date a Native Guy with Braids.” I was beyond embarrassed by the image. Don’t get me wrong, I looked good in that fully-beaded red vest Mom made for my high school graduation, braids hanging to my waist. But as a meme, I felt like an exotic noble savage. No one stops me for impromptu photo-ops in my street clothes. That’s not the Indian they picture. They want the “Last of the Mohicans.”
Wise guys of generations past preached, “the clothes make the man,” a saying often taken as glib careerist advice. But clothes — or more precisely bodies and how we dress them — do make people. Among the Tlingit in present-day Alaska, chiefs wear elaborate hats carved and painted with family crests and topped with rings matching the number of potlatches they’ve hosted to give away their wealth, a sign of status and honor. On feast days, the women of Laguna Pueblo wear stately dresses with long buckskin moccasins, woven sashes, and silver and turquoise jewelry. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of the first Indigenous women elected to Congress, wore an outfit like this to her swearing-in ceremony this January. The legendary Oglala warrior Tasunke Witko, or Crazy Horse, washed his body with the dirt of a molehill, painted his countenance with a single streak representing lightning and kept a small stone on the left side of his body so that no bullet would touch him on the battlefield. In 1877, he was murdered in the custody of the Army, a bayonet thrust into his back. Fashion, it seems, can unmake too. Feathers and fringe recast our race as a mascot. Sagging pants and hoodies turn our Black and brown bodies into targets, like Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back while handcuffed on the ground by BART police. A head of long, dark hair can put our women, like Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, at risk of going missing or turning up murdered. It’s a morbid thing to fortify a body against genocide. As First Peoples, our sartorial choices become, out of necessity, assertions of vitality.
In the green room behind Montoya’s blue canopy, I meet an entourage of cool kids. There’s Corinne Oestreich of the Lakota and Mohawk nations, a blogger for powwows.com. She’s wearing a red shirt and a black medallion beaded with the hashtag “MMIW,” which stands for “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.” Beside her is Mike Luna, thirty-nine-year-old music producer of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, who lives in Chicago. He’s wearing clear Warby Parker frames, a graphic hoodie by the graffiti artist Cent Rock, cargo pants by Columbia and streetwear brand Kith, and Slam Jam Asics Gel Lyte IIIs. He manages up-and-coming musical talents like Xavier Omär, and looks every bit the part of the hype man. And then there’s Calina Lawrence, twenty-six-year-old singer-songwriter from the Suquamish Nation by way of San Francisco, who builds her outfits around a single item of clothing. Today it’s a yellow dress, which she’s paired with dirty white Chuck Taylors, a red, white, turquoise, and yellow flannel, and a teal Urban Native Era cap embroidered with Montoya’s signature hummingbird. Together, they make quite the clique. I ask them what it means to dress Indigenous bodies — their bodies. Luna says Native fashion is “true to the culture, but not afraid to take risks.” Lawrence is more philosophical. “It’s important to the self, it’s important to the people we are representing,” she says. “It just helps me stay connected. I don’t have to wear Indigenous streetwear to feel about it, but it’s a personal connection to home when I’m homesick or when I want to bring out a message.”
Montoya is one of the leading tastemakers in a cottage industry of brands dressing Indigenous Gen Z-ers and millennials like Lawrence, Luna, Ostereich, and me. Alongside Urban Native Era, or “U.N.E.” as friends of the brand call it, there’s NTVS, a hip-hop inspired company that produces graphic-heavy designs, sometimes in collaboration with the Kiowa and Choctaw artist Steven Paul Judd. There’s OXDX, a Diné-owned fashion label that boasts the popular statement shirt “Native Americans Discovered Columbus.” And then there’s Section 35, a Vancouver-based streetwear brand whose name references the section of the Canadian Constitution that enshrines the rights and treaties of Indigenous nations, and whose products often riff on popular streetwear looks. Last summer, I bought a Section 35 shirt that looked almost identical to the Anti-Social Social Club design owned by Stüssy founder Neek Lurk, except the Section 35 version is branded: “Anti-Colonial Social Club.” When I wear it out, passersby do double-takes.
The Indigenous body is almost always unexpected in the city, where most think we are dead or suffering on some far-off reservations. That we are still here despite all that has happened is a profound truth. Done well, Native fashion revels in this reveal.
Montoya understands this well. He grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco, the son of a Lipan Apache Merchant Marine and El Salvadoran immigrant. He started making clothing six years ago amid the rise of the Idle No More movement started by First Nations in Canada. His original intent wasn’t so much to make fashion as it was to make a statement. Native people and issues are too easily forgotten here in the Bay Area. Montoya wants to empower us with visibility and belonging. “A lot of people get so lost in the city,” he says. As he refined his practice, he realized that apparel, originally just a byproduct of advocacy, can convey meaning and express power. “It takes our culture with us. It says we’re Native, we’re here, we’re in this city.” That rootedness is core to Montoya’s art and identity.
On a Wednesday in May, I met Montoya in his office in the San Francisco hills overlooking the Mission. Montoya’s elementary school, St. John’s, is just down the block. The college he graduated from two years ago, San Jose State, is less than an hour’s drive without traffic. Coming up, Montoya watched the rolling San Francisco cityscape transform around him from a countercultural enclave to a breeding ground for billionaire tech moguls. “As I grew up and left for college, I started to see places go out of business, apartment buildings catch on fire, and people being forced to move because of high living prices,” he says. “As I moved back after college, I started to see all this first hand. It made me feel like I was an outsider in my own neighborhood.”
While this boom left many Urban Indians behind, Montoya has, in a small way, taken off. He starts most days at four a.m. with a trip to the gym. He logs on around six at Martha & Bros. Coffee, where he starts his grind posting on social media and listening to podcasts — Black With No Cream, for content creators, and The GaryVee Audio Experience, a show about entrepreneurship, are two of his favorites. His childhood friend Jenni Riccetti, owner of Riccetti Clothing, picks him up around eight or nine and they drive up the hill to their shared co-working space, where they spend the rest of the day designing, ideating, and filling orders while listening to hip-hop and Top 40. Montoya tries to tell a story with each product he produces, which requires brainstorming, drafting, and research. Riccetti is one of his most trusted thought thought-partners, and the two bat ideas back and forth daily. Montoya doesn’t even own an illustrator tablet, so he has to sketch by hand or on his mousepad, which can be tedious. Despite the tools missing from his box, he dreams about opening his own brick-and-mortar retail and community space and maybe growing the brand beyond Indigenous customers. He’s slowly but surely getting there. Last year, he paired up with the Phenomenal Women Action Campaign to produce the “Phenomenally Indigenous” t-shirt for Native Women’s Equal Pay Day on September 27. Rosario Dawson rocked the shirt for a public appearance at the WeVoteNext Summit in Los Angeles. Other celebrities, like Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, have also repped U.N.E. on social media. This year, Montoya began hosting the new Indigenous Red Market in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood every first Sunday of the month. When he’s wrestling with the next big idea, design, or vision, he gazes out his office window at the swelling downtown skyline of the city he’s always called home. “What brings me joy is seeing the brand out there and seeing people represent,” he says. “I’m really excited to see these next generations of Native youth to actually grow up with these Native fashion brands and seeing how that is going to impact them ten years down the line, fifteen years down the line.”
As an Indian, I’ve been fetishized and framed in many ways, none of them true to who I am, or who I aspire to be. The last few weeks, I’ve been wearing my new U.N.E. gear pretty regularly. Two weeks ago, a white woman pointed at “You are on Native Land” emblazoned on my breast and said “cool shirt!” It felt good to be seen that way: like the Indian I picture.