In 2017, Amber Buckanaga left a career in education to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer. She converted her basement into a studio. There was no serger. No embroider. But she had a sewing machine. The basic setup proved all she needed.
Buckanaga had learned how to sew blankets and quilts and traditional dance regalia as a kid and continued practicing while attending high school at Nay Ah Shing on the Mille Lacs Band Reservation and then Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. Drawing on her experience, she worked in her home to create 14 looks in men and women wear for Rise New York Fashion Week this past February. It was her first full collection. Her first show ever. In the three months that followed, she went on to show her collection at the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, Fashion Week Minnesota Kick Off Party in Minneapolis and the depot train museum with the Duluth Art Institute.
Since then, Buckanaga, a 28-year-old enrolled member of the Leech Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe residing in East Lake, has been showcasing the collection at several other events in the region and also working with the crew at her own clothing design company, called the Buckanaga Social Club to create a distinctly modern style for a new collection.
Assisting club members include her sister Alyssa Buckanaga (beaded jewelry and leather work), her brother Aaron Buckanaga (leather work specializing in belts, drums, drumsticks and regalia design) and her friends Sophie Glass (acrylic paint artist now working on a large painting for a store in Jacobson, Minn.) and Chelsey Wilkie (sewist acting as Buckanaga’s assistant during fashion shows).
Last Sunday, Buckanaga brought four of her looks from the New York event in addition to 14 new ones from her Spring/Summer 2020 collection to the KBFT Native Fashion Show at Fortune Bay Resort Casino on the Bois Forte Reservation.
“I stepped outside my comfort zone and created clothing with colors that I wouldn’t normally wear with reds and pinks and lots of prints,” Buckanaga said. “But I like my work to be bold so I used bright colors.”
In presenting her latest collection, Buckanaga said she sought to “make modern clothing.” She provided a few examples of standout pieces. “Usually men wear ribbon shirts and pants, but I made them for females, too. And the crop tops are modeled after the strap dresses worn by Ojibwe women.” She added, “ I like for anyone to wear what I make.”
Buckanaga enlisted five Indigenous models to appear in the fashion show, including Alyssa Buckanaga, 27, Mandy Behnke, 31, Alyssa Northrop, 18, Kayla Aubid, 27, and Jamie Aubid, 38. (Kayla Aubid is the gallery director at the MacRostie Art Center.)
Twenty minutes before the show, the models gathered in the dressing room for final preparations.
Alyssa Buckanaga fingered through a rack of her outfits: 1) “this is a high-waisted applique pants with red and light blue ribbon work”; 2) “and here are purple shorts with front pockets and appliqueed on the backside”; 3) “a traditional ribbon skirt”; 4) “and a gold gown with ribbon work of burgundy, red, green and tan.”
Where did the ideas come from? “Amber’s brain,” Alyssa Buckanaga said, smiling when applying makeup beside the four other women in the dressing room. Jamie Aubid, the only male model, was adjusting his clothing in the space filled with family and friends and children.
“I feel it’s traditional with a twist of modern to it,” Alyssa Buckanaga continued. “I feel like New York opened up her mind to the way she designs clothing and she’s grown from using neutral colors to very bright colors in a modern way.”
Meanwhile, Brian Anderson, of Fortune Bay, and George Strong, the general manager at KBFT 89.9 FM Bois Forte Tribal Community Radio, banded together in welcoming a crowd into the free event in the Woodlands Ballroom. Strong said the Native Fashion Show was put on with money received through Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund in celebration of National Native American Heritage Month. The radio station also used the money to sponsor Tracy Bone, an Indigenous country music singer from Canada who played the room after the fashion show over the weekend.
During the fashion show, Alyssa Buckanaga walked from the dressing room through black curtains, strutting her high-waisted appliqueed pants with multi-colored ribbon work, onto the stage and down a runway between rows of Native and non-Native onlookers. She modeled the clothing, as Beyonce’s 2019 song “Brown Skin Girl” played over the loudspeakers. “Brown skin girl/Your skin just like pearls/The best thing in the world/Never trade you for anybody else.” There was applause and cheers and “wows” as the models walked the casino runway to the beats of Minneapolis-grown rapper Lizzo.
Buckanaga’s fashion show was the first of its kind at Fortune Bay. And it was the first fashion show for many in the audience, including Panda Whiteman, of Canada, and her daughter Charmaine Jourdain, 23, and son Brian Whiteman Jr., 23, who cheered on the models.
Panda Whiteman said she thought “it’s important to support artists because they’re showing their creativity and a lot of people in the community like to sew and bead.”
“I see ribbon skirts at pow-wows, but this is a different take on how it’s modern,” Jourdain explained. “It’s very creative. They went beyond the traditional and they showed how you could wear them everyday and not only at ceremonial events. I could wear those clothes out in town.”
Brian Whiteman, an enrolled member of the Bois Forte, added, “I liked the shorts and T-shirts. I’d buy them.”