“We have been stuck in a period of time where our designs are not created for us anymore. They’re for an outside audience. That’s something I would love to be able to see again.”
Dakota Mace is a Diné (Navajo) artist from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she grew up surrounded by traditional artistic practices. “My whole family specializes in silver making and jewelry, so I grew up with a lot of arts around me my entire life.” Finding an early allergy to silver, Dakota decided to focus on other art elements. “I got really into photography when I was 14. I started to learn a lot of alternative processes, and that included cyanotypes, wet plate collodion, so everything you wouldn’t see in a traditional black-and-white photography studio—that’s what I really loved.”
While Dakota was earning a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, her mentor, Tom Jones, visited the Institute and recommended she apply to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She would go on to complete a Master of Arts and a Master of Fine Arts from UW–Madison, both in photography. Upon being accepted to the two programs and moving to Wisconsin, she struggled to find material to photograph and ways to express her indigenous roots. Jones connected Dakota to Jamie Ross, a collector of Diné textiles in Mineral Point. Dakota shares, “What was really unique about [these textiles] was that they had a lot of text on them which is rare in a lot of Navajo weavings. It started my interest, of course, in textiles, documenting textiles, but also in really trying to understand the intention of the weavers and why they chose to weave a weaving that said ‘12 eggs’ or ‘sugar.’”
Dakota’s curiosity around the historic, economic, and geographic contexts for these weavings led her toward her current research area: trading routes and connections between indigenous weavings’ cultures, spanning from the Zapotec in Mexico to the Salish in Canada. She is now pursuing her second Master of Fine Arts with a focus in textile design. Housed at the School of Human Ecology, Dakota’s current degree program focuses on weaving, specifically research on indigenous textiles, their process, and technique. In addition to teaching as a lecturer in photography within the UW–Madison Art Department next year, she is looking ahead to PhD programs with a focus in cultural appropriation.
The bulk of Dakota’s research studies two veins of cultural appropriation: the cultural exchange that has taken place among indigenous peoples for centuries and that which takes place in the marketplace, as indigenous weaving designs are stolen, commodified, and desecrated. The latter phenomenon is explored in Dakota’s collection Woven Juxtaposition . It places Diné weavings next to products sold by Urban Outfitters, Target, and Pendleton, whose designs are stolen and bastardized versions of the Diné work. The body of work is a damning depiction of American businesses who market themselves as “genuine” despite both a lack of artistic authenticity and a lack of compensation for the indigenous people from whom they are stealing. One of Dakota’s diptychs is called Sex Trade , which shows a pair of Urban Outfitters underwear next to a mid-20th century Diné traditional wool weaving. She talks about the period when she was compiling this body of work. “I started focusing in textiles. That was my MA show—looking at the way museums categorize textiles, specifically Navajo weavings. This was at the time when Navajo Nation had a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters and the fact they were using the term ‘Navajo’ to describe objects they were selling, specifically a pair of underwear that was extremely offensive to native people particularly. … What a lot of people don’t know about native history is that there’s been a lot of missing and murdered indigenous women due to, of course, sexual trauma and history, so it was a real offense to have something as simple as underwear with Navajo Design work on it and call that Navajo.”
While the Navajo Nation didn’t win the case to stop the use of their designs or name, they were able to open the doors for others to fight against companies and individuals from using indigenous designs and terms. Dakota says, “That really pushed me to start researching cultural appropriation not only for my own people, but for all indigenous people.”
Today, in a twist of cultural appropriation, one of Dakota’s signature techniques is to prepare native weavings using western techniques. For example, her piece I’íí’áago and Hayoołkááł (Sunset and Dawn ) looks like Navajo weavings but was completed with a floor loom. She says, “It’s been a fun way of playing with people just because I am mimicking a lot of Diné weaving designs and traditions but not using traditional materials. So it’s my own way of showing others that, ‘Yes, you can be inspired, use different materials, and create a very similar effect that you can get anywhere from the processes you are connecting with.’ I use it as my own inside joke—here’s my way of culturally appropriating from western culture.”
Dakota shows me a flat cream-white fabric made of tiny glass beads and continues, “When Europeans came, they introduced glass—specifically glass beads—so it’s a big part of native culture now to do beadwork. To have people understand, ‘No, that was us adopting another element from a different culture and including it in our own way of doing things.’ One culture takes for another and takes from another. It becomes one. And unless you start doing the research, you don’t realize that at all.”
Dakota’s work can be digitally accessed at dakotamace.com . In addition to her digital collection, she’s involved in a handful of exhibitions through the School of Human Ecology. From April 27 to May 17, Dakota held her MFA exhibition, Yák’aashbąąh , at the Ruth Davis Design Gallery. “This September,” she says, “I’m co-curating an exhibition with my good friend Kendra Greendeer, a PhD student in the art history department at UW–Madison. Intersections: Indigenous Textiles of the Americas focuses on indigenous weaving practices, techniques, and its connection to value, trade, and design. It will be going up at the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery. It will really emphasize the trading value and design aspects of the weavings and how these cultures, although extremely different in location, are still very similar and connected through weaving.”
In November, she’ll also be participating in Points of Departure , a show honoring the 50th anniversary of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection at the same gallery. A group of artists chosen from throughout Wisconsin will make pieces inspired by objects in the collection. More information on these events will be uploaded to sohe.wisc.edu/calendar-of-events .
Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.