Model Quannah Chasinghorse: ‘If you want to work with me, you have to work with me wholeheartedly’

Written by Quannah Chasinghorse

Quannah Chasinghorse is an Indigenous activist and land protector who has become a sought-after role model over the past two years. All opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. The feature is part of CNN Style’s Hypheated series, which explores complex questions of identity.

Although I’ve been in fashion since I was young, I never thought I could be a model. I’m a proud member of the Hän Gwich’in and Sičangu/Oglala Lakota tribes in the United States, but like most native teenagers, I grew up without any representation in pop culture. I didn’t feel confident or even like my appearance.

When I was 14, I got my first face tattoo, a traditional hand tattoo called Yidįįłtoo, in a ceremony that was performed to signify coming of age. It was truly a special moment. I could have done this sooner, but waited until I could better articulate its meaning and sacredness: why it is so important for us to reclaim this tradition after it – like so many other cultural practices – has been almost erased. The other tattoos have each been a rite of passage. Not all Aboriginal people’s tattoos are the same; they each tell our personal stories.

Quannah Chasinghorse photographed in Tongva Land, Tarzana, California. Credit: Evan Benally Atwood

I always wanted to represent my people in the best way, and now I have the chance to do so, being on the covers of magazines and on the catwalks. Being someone who can change the way other people see beauty is important because I know a lot of girls who look like me who can feel out of place.

It’s really beautiful to be part of a larger change in the fashion industry where people from all walks of life are increasingly represented. But my rule is that if you want to work with me, you have to work with me completely. I will not cut or change the color of my hair or cover my face tattoos as they are part of my identity as an Indigenous person. When I started, I worried that these non-negotiables would keep me from booking jobs, but instead I found the opposite. Everyone I have worked with has been so welcoming, understanding and gracious. I have been so blessed.

honor my indigeneity

Last September, I attended my first Met Gala, one of fashion’s biggest parties. I wanted to debut the right way, especially knowing that the theme was a celebration of American fashion. I decided to be myself and honor my Indigeneity, which I did by pairing a gold lamé dress designed by Peter Dundas with Indigenous accessories.

Chasinghorse at the Met Gala last September.

Chasinghorse at the Met Gala last September. Credit: Taylor Hill/WireImage/Getty Images

The turquoise and silver jewelry actually belongs to one of my aunts, who was named Miss Navajo Nation in 2006. I wore several of her beautiful silver and turquoise necklaces, earrings, and bracelets.

My mum had to raise me and my brothers as a single parent and my aunts played a huge role in my upbringing and I often talk about my mum and the aunt team and all they matter to me. These strong matriarchs showed me what real power looks like and how to use it in the best way possible.

I love the support from Anna Wintour (who thought it was a brilliant idea to incorporate the pieces) and Peter, knowing intuitively how much wearing native jewelry on the red carpet would mean to me. I wore some of my aunt’s pieces again during my shoot with Vogue Mexico, as well as those made by local artists in Alaska.

My people have always felt invisible and so having that kind of visibility is so meaningful. Despite all that Indigenous communities have endured and lost, we are still here and proud of who we are.

find my voice

From an early age, my mother taught me about our connection to each other, to our community and to the land. As Aboriginal people, we do not consider ourselves separate or more important than nature. When you grow up with a connection to the earth, it is natural that you want to defend it, because it is part of you. I chose to follow the path I am on because of those teachings, and today I continue to do my best and do my part, raising awareness of many issues within the Indigenous country, including the climate justice, protection of sacred lands and waters, Indigenous sovereignty and the MMIWG2S movement, which stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People, shape end violence against Indigenous women.
Chasinghorse with Alok Vaid-Menon and Bretman Rock speak at New York Fashion Week in a talk on identity and community within fashion.

Chasinghorse with Alok Vaid-Menon and Bretman Rock speak at New York Fashion Week in a talk on identity and community within fashion. Credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for IMG Fashion

My mother and aunts traveled with me to several rallies and demonstrations, where I had the opportunity to speak about some of these issues. They came with me to Washington DC, where I lobbied on behalf of my people to restore our sacred lands through Bill HR 1146 (which passed the House of Representatives last year but did not went no further). Thanks to their constant encouragement, I have found my voice and I am discovering my own power.

Modeling became another channel for my advocacy work. It has become a platform for telling stories and bringing pressing issues to light. For this reason, it is important for me to work with designers and brands that also uphold the same values ​​around climate justice and sustainability. I recently walked for designer Gabriela Hearst, who is sustainability-focused and has worked with Indigenous people, recognized them for their work, and hired Indigenous models to showcase the pieces. I’ve also collaborated with luxury outerwear brand Mackage, who have created a beautiful, sustainable, upcycled collection and donated to a non-profit organization that supports indigenous people around the world.

Chasinghorse parades during the Gucci Love Parade in Los Angeles.

Chasinghorse parades during the Gucci Love Parade in Los Angeles. Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Gucci

These days I get so many messages from young native women who are thrilled to see my recent fashion shoots in magazines. I can’t even explain the type of feeling I get because it’s such a powerful thing for our people to finally feel seen and heard, after so long without being represented in fashion. And this young generation will not have to break the first barrier, on the contrary, they will be able to walk this path with me.

And while I see more inclusivity in fashion around race, size, and gender, there’s always room for improvement. At every show or filming I attend, I meet the most beautiful people, and I’m not just talking about their appearance. So many rising models now have something special and unique they bring – they aren’t just meant to wear clothes. It’s encouraging to see these changes in the industry as it evolves into a better version of itself. But we must continue to hold each other accountable. I can’t wait to see him grow.

Top image: Quannah Chasinghorse speaks at the Justice for the People, Justice for the Earth rally in Fairbanks, Arkansas.

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