Native American Culture in the Spotlight

The presence of Native Americans and Native American themes in creative and business pursuits is slowly expanding. Recent examples of ventures involving Native American culture differ from many of those that have occurred in the past, in that Native people are increasingly behind the efforts, lending authenticity. In addition, the initiatives are not about history but rather sit firmly in the present, while still being influenced by Native American traditions and motifs.

Some of the areas where this trend has emerged include:

  • Cuisine. Sean Sherman, known as The Sioux Chef, has a food truck, operates cooking classes, lectures on Native cooking, and has a permanent restaurant in the works. The publication of his cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, co-authored with Beth Dooley, in 2018 put him on the national map. Other Native chefs of note who are part of the indigenous food movement include Karlos Baca, Lois Ellen Frank, and Freddie Bitsoie. All create contemporary cuisine using indigenous ingredients.
  • Children’s entertainment and media. PBS Kids’ Molly of Denali, produced by WGBH-Boston, is about a Native Alaskan family and features a girl who is both learning about her Native heritage and thoroughly modern. The creative producer of the series is Native Alaskan, and many of the actors who voice key roles, as well as several advisors, consultants, scriptwriters, and animators, are Native. Separately, HarperCollins Children’s Publishing has launched an imprint called Heartdrum to publish kids’ books by Native American creators that feature Native protagonists.
  • Fashion. Orlando Dugi is a Santa Fe-based couture designer whose lifetime creative output was featured in an exhibit at Colorado State University in 2019. His designs, which focus on formalwear, are described as combining Diné/Navajo themes with modern silhouettes. Ginew is a Portland, Oregon-based, high-end workwear and denim label integrating motifs from the founders’ Ojibwe, Oneida, and Stockbridge-Munsee cultures. The brand works with many Native models, photographers, and other team members.
  • Museums. Native-themed art exhibitions have had a high profile in the last year or two. Walt Disney World Resort’s American Heritage Gallery hosted “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art,” which pairs historical objects and modern design. The Metropolitan Museum of Art premiered “Art of Native America,” featuring 116 masterworks from more than 50 American cultures. And the Minneapolis Institute of Art put together “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists,” which was on display at the museum in 2019 and will travel to four other institutions. It included works from 115 artists across 1,000 years.

The museums offer a variety of products tied to their respective exhibitions, and Molly of Denali has made its way into children’s publishing through a deal with HarperCollins. But most of these properties are associated with little, if any, licensing to date. That said, the IP owners are overseeing commercial ventures in segments where licensing is common, which could be a precursor to licensing programs or other forms of brand extension involving these or similar properties.

Raugust Communications has posted its annual wrap-up of the past 12 months in licensing, this year offering 19 key trends from 2019. You can read it here.

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