Pairing pumps with a monochromatic trouser suit was once regarded by many as the standard uniform for women in power.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is more likely to opt for a shimmering, patterned pantsuit designed by Bethany Yellowtail, who traces her heritage to the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, and yellow and purple moccasins crafted by Anishinaabe designer Sarah Agaton Howes of the Fond du Lac reservation in northern Minnesota.
Flanagan decided on this ensemble when President Joe Biden visited Minnesota to tout his infrastructure package last fall, and earlier this spring when Gov. Tim Walz delivered his State of the State address. She also wore the suit for her new official headshot.
“That suit — people ask me, ‘Are those polka dots?'” Flanagan told me. “I’m like, ‘No, they’re elk teeth.’ That, for me, is a power suit.”
Flanagan, of course, wants to be valued for the words she speaks, the ideas in her head and the responsibilities she fulfills under the solemn oath she has sworn. But clothing can communicate a thunderous message, louder than any sound bite from a podium. Each fashion choice Flanagan makes is a conscious one.
As a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the highest ranking Native woman elected to statewide executive office, Flanagan’s message is this: A contemporary Native woman can show up to work in her full identity while lifting up contemporary Native designers.
“When I walk into the Capitol, I’m walking into a system that wasn’t created for or by us,” she said. “It’s powerful to be in those spaces, to wear a ribbon skirt, or earrings that have been beaded from love.”
Flanagan laughed when I asked if she had a stylist — the answer is no. But the 42-year-old might be Minnesota’s most fashion-aware elected official. In 2019, she turned heads at the inaugural party for her and Walz by sporting a pouffy buffalo-plaid dress custom-designed by former “Project Runway” contestant Samanta Rei of Minneapolis. On social media, she enthusiastically peppers her posts with references to local designers and artists.
“Anytime she re-shares, I get more followers. That’s always a benefit to a maker,” said textile artist and designer Maggie Thompson. “My following has grown exponentially, and it’s definitely because of support from Peggy Flanagan and other people.”
Thompson, an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who lives in St. Paul, knits winter beanies and cowls that incorporate subtle influences from regalia and beadwork. Her northeast Minneapolis creative space, Makwa Studio, refers to the word for “bear” in Ojibwe.
She remembers feeling stunned when Flanagan, whom she had never met, showed up in her studio to shop and introduce herself.
“It’s shocking,” Thompson said, recalling that the lieutenant governor purchased a cowl. “You feel really supported. Peggy is very present in the community; she’s like a real person.”
But the support between Flanagan and the artists goes both ways. Flanagan remembers as a state legislator drawing strength from a pair of earrings designed by her friend and Heart Berry CEO Howes, the Ojibwe artist who gifted her with the moccasins. Flanagan said she wore the jewelry when she spoke on the House floor or on days she had to muscle through tough political conversations.
“It makes me sit up a little straighter and put my shoulders back,” Flanagan said. “And it’s just a reminder that we are still here, that we as Native women belong in every place where decisions are made about us.”
Flanagan’s embrace of Native-designed fashions is happening as part of a larger movement. Secretary Deb Haaland of the U.S. Department of the Interior wore a ribbon skirt and white moccasins when she was sworn into office. Ruth Buffalo, a North Dakota state representative, donned an elk tooth dress while clutching an eagle feather fan for her swearing-in ceremony.
And during Biden’s State of the Union speech, as the camera panned to the Ukrainian ambassador, the frame included a colorful ribbon skirt worn by a Michigan education official who is a member of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe.
“If you were a part of Native social media,” Flanagan said, “everyone lost their mind.”
“We’ve been so used to being invisible that being seen and acknowledged and valued is all part of this moment we find ourselves in,” Flanagan said.
The ribbon skirt took off in the late 18th century, as French traders brought ribbon and other goods to the Great Lakes area. The trend traveled outward and hit its peak in the 19th century.
“Ojibwe clothing, which was previously made of animal hide, began being replaced by garments of wool and cotton with the traditional applique style of ribbon work you see today being worked in over time,” reported the Leech Lake News.
But the tradition has been revived in recent years, thanks to designers like Delina White of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Typically a satin ribbon is sewn into the cloth, creating stripes that circle across the skirt, said White, who launched the brand I Am Anishinaabe. She said she’s proud of bringing a piece of her ancestors’ heritage into a contemporary context.
“You can wear your traditional ribbon skirt to school, wear it to the grocery store, wear it to work,” she said. “You can make it fancy, you can make it modest, you can make it monochrome or bright, you make it for two-spirits. It’s about celebrating who you are.”
Since 2015, White also has been the mastermind of fashion shows featuring Indigenous designers, models, backstage technicians and stylists. She says it’s part of her mission to promote creative people of Native backgrounds because they have limited opportunities in the industry.
Cultural appropriation of Native American style and imagery is an ongoing concern — even among non-Native people. Socially conscious consumers may not wish to support apparel that profits off of Indigenous identity, or wear pieces that are spiritually protected. Many designers cling to the tagline created by the Indigenous-owned art and lifestyle brand Eighth Generation: “Inspired Natives, not Native-inspired.”
“I believe when you buy directly from a Native designer — which hopefully there will be more and more, as there’s a need and demand for us — that you can be safe in purchasing what it is they’re producing,” White said.
When Haaland visited Minnesota this spring, Flanagan greeted her wearing a sparkly ribbon skirt with jagged rickrack trim adorning the hem. Her husband, Tom Weber, tracked down the dress and purchased it from Beads Sews Creations after Flanagan gasped while seeing it on the runway at White’s fashion show last year.
For Haaland’s visit, Flanagan also sported a pair of beaded earrings that “look like fire,” beaded by Charlie Stately, longtime owner of the Woodland Indian Craft gift store inside the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Flanagan said her daughter, third-grader Siobhan, only knows of a world where her mom is lieutenant governor and her “Auntie Deb” is a cabinet member.
She hopes other young girls whose communities traditionally haven’t been represented in politics can be convinced that dressing like themselves is professional, whether they’re giving a speech at the Capitol or a presentation in a corporate boardroom.
“Native women have been leaders since time immemorial,” Flanagan said. “It’s just the rest of society that is catching up to us.”