Kelly Holmes: “Cultural Appropriation Is Violence.”

Hi, Kelly! Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your business and publication?

Kelly (she/hers): My name is Kelly Holmes. My Lakota name is Waŋblí ob Kiŋyáŋ Wíŋ which means Flys Among Eagles Woman. I am Mnicoujou (plants by the water) and Itázipčo (Those who hunt without bows) Lakota.

I grew up on Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. I was born and raised there, and when I was 16 years old, we moved to Colorado. My mom was accepted into CU boulder where she obtained her masters in linguistics. My mother is a Lakota speaker, but she went to school to read and write it. I’m a huge fan of language.

When I moved to Colorado, I had low self-confidence and self-esteem, but I was discovered as a model, and that’s when I became interested in fashion. I found that Native fashion particularly interested in me, and it grew from there. I went on to start Native Max Magazine. It started out with the idea of a Vogue style magazine that features Native American and First Nations people. Our first issue came out of September 2012. So, next year will be 10 years. 


Can you please tell us about some of the original thoughts on gender that the Mnicoujou Lakota people have historically had?

Kelly: I would like to share the gender identities and genders in my tribe. They’re different from Charlie’s and across all of the tribes. Traditionally, there were two genders: male and female. But, in my tribe, there’s also Two spirit which is the happening of a male and female living inside of you. We actually considered that type of person sacred because they have two spirits and two genders living within them. These Two spirit people typically held power. They were medicine people and healers. They cared for others. They were considered so sacred that they lived by themselves outside of the village. There was just this common knowledge of not approaching them whenever you wanted to because they were highly respected. They were not shunned. It was not like that at all.

A lot of Northern Plain tribes still use the term Two spirit, but it’s taken over mainstream as a term for any LGBTQ+ person that’s Indigenous. It’s not that way all over the place though. Nowadays, Two spirit people are treated very badly because that knowledge is lost. It is really bad. I have relatives who identify as Two spirit or LGBTQ, and they are treated very badly. I’m trying to teach my family differently. However, with colonization, that tradition is so lost. Beliefs we use to have like that are gone. So, we have to get back to these beliefs.

Also, the male and female were equal within our tribe. Women were considered sacred because we were the only ones who could bring someone from the spirit world into this one, and that’s a sacred role. Women were held in high regard. They were very respected. Men weren’t considered the toughest ones, and strength was not something reserved for males like the Western concept masculinity.

Obviously, men were important because they were hunters and providers, but women were just as important, and they were the keepers of the community. Women were community leaders. They coordinated meetings and events similar to what I do today. Women were the decision makers. Anytime there was a council of chiefs who got together, they consulted with women first. It wasn’t patriarchal.

Because women were in charge of decisions, it was matriarchal. They were able to make consequential decisions because they were emotional. They were able to think of everybody including the children and the elders. They were able to think about the future. Men realized that and respected it, but today it’s different.


Is femininity a concept within native fashion, and how might it be expressed differently than contemporary western fashion?

In Native fashion, that Western belief of femininity wasn’t there. It wasn’t like - “oh, that man is feminine” because he wore certain things. Men wore jewelry, earrings, they created jewelry, they beaded, they sowed, and they quilled. I have uncles who do this. There wasn’t any concept of a feminine esthetic back in the day. But with Western thinking, there is today.  For example, when I first started doing the fashion shows, only boys who were a part of the LGBTQ community wanted to do it, but the ones who weren’t worried about coming across as feminine. When I started doing fashion events and fashion shows, boys weren’t wanting to do it. The only ones who joined or wanted to participate were LGBTQ and Two spirit identifying people. But then, on the sidelines, I would hear other men talking about them. But over the years, the interest is growing. So, I do these fashion shows so kids who are on reservations can have exposure and opportunities. They learn how to walk with their heads up high, and they learn to walk with their shoulders back. Participating in these fashion shows helps them move throughout their daily lives. The fashion shows help break down the Western concept of gender boundaries as well.


Kelly, can you tell me about how cultural appropriation within pop culture and fashion plays a significant role in erasure? How does erasure like this impact the self-image of Indigenous youths?

Kelly: Ever since I’ve started the magazine, I’ve seen cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation contributes to Indigenous erasure. Native fashion is very unique because there’s so much investment of time, culture, and history. When native designers design something, they evoke generational knowledge that survived colonialism. And when these designs are bluntly taken and copied for profit, it’s deeply insulting. Native designers and artists invest so much time and energy into what they do, and they love what they do.

What also makes Native fashion unique is that there’s no waste, there’s no mass production of anything. There’s a concern for the Earth. There are all of these powerful aspects of native fashion, and for someone to just take a design and run with it is obviously harmful. It also takes an opportunity away from Native designers. The impact of cultural appropriation on Indigenous youth is the same as giving an acting role to a non-native person who claims ancestry or heritage. It’s harmful because it tells Native youth that they will never be good enough to hold a space that is theirs. How then are young people supposed to perpetuate their culture? Likewise, this directly contributes to erasure.

Cultural appropriation is wrong because our people were murdered due to our beliefs and ways. I am a direct descendant of the wounded knee massacre in South Dakota which resulted in the deaths of more than 250 Lakotas, and possibly as many as 300. My people were killed for even practicing their culture and speaking their language.

So, to turn around and see a white person appropriate our culture really upsets me and makes me angry because it’s wrong, especially if I see someone wearing a headdress. There were two times in my life that I’ve grabbed headdresses off of girls. I just could not let that happen. Back when I was in high school, I was at a concert in downtown Denver. This white girl was wearing a headdress all the way down to the ground. And I was just like - “are you serious???” I was so livid that I went behind her and yanked it off. She was so surprised. She just looked at me stunned and grabbed it back.

I looked her in the face and said, “you shouldn’t be wearing that.”

She just said - “…it’s part of my outfit...!” 

And just those words were so infuriating - it’s a part of my outfit. We went through a genocide, and someone still thinks that it’s okay to wear a headdress disrespectfully. It’s very disrespectful to wrongly wear a headdress like that. The culture of our people is so disrespectfully portrayed in fashion. Therefore, a large part of Native Max is correcting how Indigenous people are portrayed in mainstream media. This disrespectful portrayal is harmful because it continues violence towards Indigenous people, especially women and LGBTQ members.

Things like costumes are very dangerous. I remember in high school those were popular. I never wore those costumes, but I’ve been to a party where this Caucasian guy wouldn’t stop touching me and saying inappropriate things. So, appropriation like Halloween costumes and mascots contributes to danger against us. When other people wear those costumes, they perpetuate the hypersexualization of Native Women and that was what I experienced. Indigenous people are highly targeted, and no one is going to miss us. We never get justice. When we go out, we say to our friends on a regular basis - “if something were to happen to me, know that I was at this place at this time.” That’s an everyday occurrence for us. It’s that dangerous for us.


Kelly, what has your journey been like as an Indigenous woman who works in beauty journalism? What are some of the barriers and challenges that you’ve faced? How have you persevered through them?

Kelly: I work with so many people of different tribes. I recognize that I represent not only myself, but my tribe and my people. But just recently, I was diagnosed with clinical depression so taking care of myself has been an inner battle within myself. I have to remind myself to take care of myself. I’m an entrepreneur, a single mom, and I’m constantly taking care of my community. Six years ago, I had a health scare. So, I was like - “Kelly, you need to take care of yourself.” To help empower myself, I just unplug everything. I put away my phones and my computer. I order a meal from somewhere to go, and I’ll have a date night where I eat the food and watch a movie. I’ll write and draw or bead to unleash my creativity. I have to take care of myself in order to make the world a bit better for Indigenous youths to navigate.