When I was working for the City of Portland as a “clerical specialist”, a new employee was hired. She was black, from an African country (I don’t remember which country) and wore the colorful clothing of that place. Intending a welcome, I stopped by her desk to greet her and remarked on her “costume.” Though I was once a “costumer” for a summer theatre, I simply meant that her apparel was beautiful. She lodged a formal complaint against me for mocking her clothing. To her a “costume” meant something like Halloween. She wanted me to recognize that she was dressing normally and conventionally — for her own country.
On a later date she went out for coffee and while she was gone, a bomb threat came in (1998 or so) and we all trooped out to wait in the little park across the street that is now contaminated by tear gas from riots. The African woman returned from her break to find the entire floor deserted. She was panicked, unable to understand, and later — telling her that it was a bomb threat — did not reassure her. In her country bombs were not just threats. Soon she found another job. It’s not aways easy being in two cultures at once.
At one point among the Unitarians, the wearing of African dashikis at parties was a fad, but when it came time to sort out my belongings before moving back to Montana, I was puzzled about what to do with mine. I finally gave it to a black woman inspector who was dubious about accepting it from a white woman in case it was condescending of me. She knew what it was and already had one. She finally accepted it.
International politics are not usually relevant to dresses but I was well aware of the politics of wearing Blackfeet garments. One Indian Days when we had the young grandkids with us, Bob got the idea that we should participate in the final Round Dance of the last night, an event that was meant to be inclusive, even pulling in tourists to dance in the circle. But his idea was that we would wear clothing pieces from his collection of artifacts. This was 1965 or so — people could have remembered whose clothes they were originally. For the two little granddaughters, I made red flannel dresses and decorated them with dangling metal objects like rivets and washers. The People laughed. But they narrowed their eyes at the historical clothing.
This week appeared a portrait of Deb Aaland on the cover of “In Style” magazine, calling her a “badass woman.” She was wearing a simple modern dress with a shawl over her shoulder, a decorative strip on top of that. Her jewelry was vaguely Navajo. This was not the typical costume of any tribe and yet it looked definitely and distinctively Native American. If anyone in 1965 had said a woman was a “bad ass” it would not have meant what this magazine meant.
In profile Aaland was pictured again in a bright dress with a shawl and with fabulous modern earrings. Again, she was completely Native American but quite modern. If she had been historical, she would have been wearing buckskin with quill decorations. But partly because resistance to assimilation had lead to the emergence of a kind of universal style and partly because of an innate love of intensity and experiment, this look had blossomed as surely as if it had come from a couturier in Paris.
“Fusion” is a word usually applied to music or food, but it is about clothing as well. I once got into trouble at a fancy banquet for staring at Mary Lou Whitney who was wearing a St. Laurent knock-off of gypsy clothing.
Fusion starts with the music, goes to the food, and soon affects clothing. But an anthropologist might list the following contexts affected by fusion:
- Values. Beliefs, principles and important aspects of lifestyle.
- Customs. Holidays, clothing, greetings, typical rituals and activities.
- Marriage and Family. Type of marriage (i.e. arranged, free, same sex.) …
- Government and Law. …
- Games and Leisure. …
- Economy and Trade. …
- Language. …
It can happen in ghettos: :a merging of diverse, distinct, or separate elements into a unified whole: Or it can be an elite phenomena. Opera is a fusion of several arts. It is not the same as assimilation because it leaves the elements intact and identifiable, but it still begins a new thing. Here’s are links to examples.
“Jazz-rock, also called fusion, popular musical form in which modern jazz improvisation is accompanied by the bass lines, drumming styles, and instrumentation of rock music, with a strong emphasis on electronic instruments and dance rhythms.”
This vid is about Sushi Tacos. Can you believe it?
How about “Indian tacos”? You know.
Fusion is the inevitable result of globalization — as the people get used to each other, they also get used to sharing food and clothing ideas, and conformity is surrendered to make room for new combinations. Mostly it happens in cities where people come from different backgrounds, but can also happen because of travel or just the drive to find something new. Television is a fertile source.
Picasso et al were looking for an edge to explore when they took up African art and rocked their world with abstraction and cubism. Now we have American Indian artists, esp. those influenced by the Institute of American Indian Arts, who found a way to escape from the Western cowboys and Indians trope, by developing hybrids like “ledger art” or near-Asian styles.
In fact, I would theorize that indigenous people are always masters of fusion in all its aspects as a matter of sanity and self-defense. Thus they continue in dynamic process, becoming new but never really leaving their identity as it was defined before contact. Deb Aaland can represent this nation across its diversity without giving up her basic native values from within the identity of the People who were already here.