From exhibits and a model at the Met Gala to beaders and designers at Paris Fashion Week, 2022 has so far been a historic year for Indigenous fashion.
That momentum will soon propel two Muscogee twins from Sapulpa, Autumn and Raini Deerinwater, to be the faces of Indigenous Americans for millions of people on a Times Square billboard as they model clothes and accessories made by First Nations designer Sheila Tucker.
The New York City billboard is the latest of many places Tucker’s work has been featured, including Harper’s Bazaar UK, Elle Magazine Italy, and New York and Paris fashion weeks.
Tucker said the billboard is set to go up in Times Square in late June or early July.
“It’s an unreal feeling,” Autumn Deerinwater said the afternoon after the women did their first photo shoot for the billboard. “(The feeling) just stays with me, and I can’t believe it’s actually working out the way it is.”
She had just moved to Arizona, where Tucker is based, in October 2021 when she began modeling for Tucker’s brand regularly.
The Deerinwaters’ father is one of Tucker’s biggest collectors, so their collaboration on her brand came naturally, Tucker said.
After a few months working with Autumn, a publicist team that owns several Times Square billboards contacted Tucker, an Ojibwe Native from the Yellowquill First Nation of Saskatchewan, Canada, about showcasing her work.
It was a dream come true she’d thought about only a week before the offer came in.
Tucker and her children were on a road trip up the West Coast when she first thought about having her work on a billboard.
“You see all these billboards lining the road, and I told my son it’d be cool if I could have a billboard someday,” Tucker said. “It happened so soon after that, and I thought, ‘It was meant to be.’ I was completely floored by it.”
Once she said yes to the billboard, she had to figure out who would model her work, and Autumn Deerinwater was an obvious choice.
An Indigenous model as the face of an Indigenous brand. What could be better?
“Autumn just had that look,” Tucker said. “The beauty is all there, and so natural. I didn’t even know she had a twin sister, so when I found out about (Raini), I said, ‘Oh, my god. we have to do both of you in this shoot. This is going to be great.’”
When Raini Deerinwater first got the call from her sister about the opportunity to model Tucker’s designs, she couldn’t believe she would be going from her normal job to modeling for photos that would be seen by millions of people.
“I go to work every day, 8-to-5,” she said. “It didn’t hit me yet until the morning we did our first shoot. I had seen some of (Tucker’s) media tags from Paris Fashion Week, and I think that’s when it hit me. This is huge.”
The Deerinwater sisters, who also have Navajo heritage, are 2016 graduates of Sapulpa High School, and for them, this opportunity was the perfect way to express their Oklahoma and Native American pride.
“It’s more than just a picture in Times Square,” Raini Deerinwater said. “It’s representing Native American women for a Native American brand. We’re hard-working Native American women, and I want to represent more hard-working Native American women.”
More than 300,000 people on average pass through Times Square daily, many of them international tourists, so the billboard can open doors for people to learn about Native American and First Nations history.
Tucker, a survivor of and descendant of survivors of Canadian residential schools, said much of her work is inspired by her grandmothers’ beadwork, and she said symbolism representing residential schools’ painful legacy is imbued within each piece.
“Both my parents are residential school survivors; I’m a residential school survivor,” Tucker said. “I lived that aftermath, and I’m now breaking that chain of what every other Native American has lived through. The story of survival is within each one of us.”
The rise in Indigenous fashion in mainstream fashion — namely Oglala Lakota and Han Gwich’in model Quannah Chasinghorse‘s attendance at the 2021 and 2022 Met Galas wearing accessories made by other Indigenous designers — proves to Tucker and the Deerinwaters that Native American expression through fashion is sending many messages to the world.
“Being able to express ourselves through fashion is very telling of the healing process we’ve begun,” Tucker said. “There’s one handbag I made that went to Paris (Fashion Week). It’s a little girl with a horse. To me that represented a lot because it represents the little girl, the child in everyone that lived through the traumas we’ve been though. We’ve healed through finding our ways again.”
For Autumn Deerinwater, Chasinghorse’s Met Gala appearances show that Indigenous representation is growing and that she and her sister are only helping that representation.
Her message to other Oklahomans who have big dreams: You can do it.
“You have that thing that makes you special, and that’s what separates you from other people,” she said. “There’s no limitations to anything you can do. After I saw (Chasinghorse) at the Met Gala, that’s when I thought, ‘It’s possible.’ And us being (from Oklahoma) and doing this billboard, other young people can see this opportunity for local people and think it’s possible for them, as well.”