Florida Seminole tribe members allege NYC fashion brand appropriated their culture
Members of the Seminole tribe in Naples feel their history was ripped from them for somebody else's profit with a recent collection from a New York City-based fashion designer and her brand, Ulla Johnson.
The items are part of Ulla Johnson’s Resort 2020 collection, which a company statement said were “inspired by Seminole historical craftsmanship.”
Seminole tribe member Corinne Zepeda found the patchwork offensive.
“We still have members that make their whole income off of producing traditional clothing and selling it to other tribal members,” Zepeda said. “She’s disrespecting our craft by mass producing it and selling it at such a high rate.”
“I was disappointed. It’s 2020,” said Marissa Osceola, a Seminole tribe member who creates her own patchwork. “Taking money from indigenous people just seems wrong.”
The company, in a statement, disagreed.
"At no point in time have we ever falsely suggested that any pieces were Indian produced or Indian product," it reads.
'It was being mass-produced'
Zepeda, a member of the tribe currently living in Cincinnati, said a family member discovered parts of the collection on a trip to Nordstrom.
“It was very alarming to me because it was being mass-produced,” Zepeda said.
A November Q&A with Ulla Johnson on the Bergdorf Goodman website notes Johnson pointing to the Seminole tradition of patchworking as an inspiration.
“The Kaiya sleeveless striped long dress really exemplifies the vibe that we were going for with the Seminole patch-working. All of the triangles and patterns are made entirely by hand and I love the sort of earthy-yet bright color way,” she said in the Q & A.
The dress Johnson noted in her Q&A includes some of that patchworking — patchwork representing fire lines the bottom of the dress. It sells for $525 on Shopbop. The Simi Strip Skirt from the brand on Nordstrom’s website features another row of the same patchworking on the bottom and sells for $445.
Osceola said it's difficult to compare prices for patchwork, as different levels and demand for people's work determine the price. She did note, however, that customers could purchase an authentic piece for a better price and quality compared to one from Ulla Johnson's line.
Carrying on the culture
For the Seminole people, patchworking carries a rich tradition passed down through generation after generation of families in the tribe.
A page on the Florida Museum's website notes some patchwork designs are inspired by legends and natures of the Seminole and Miccosukee. The earliest forms of patchwork, the page explains, represent "fire," "rain," and "rain and storm."
"There is no evidence as to when or who first made patchwork, but it is documented in photographs around World War I," the page reads.
Deaconess Harriet Bedell popularized the patchwork during her time in Everglades City in the 1930s.
Osceola doesn’t use Seminole patchworking for income, but she knows how to create it and enjoys wearing the craft. Now 24, she’s been sewing since her family taught her when she was 11. While non-tribal communities rely on others to preserve their cultures, Osceola said members of her community preserve their own.
"It makes you feel culturally connected and proud," she said.
It’s a tradition she plans to pass her children — a baby boy and a girl. Wearing clothing with patchworking is typical for people in Osceola’s culture.
“It’s just a normal way to dress,” she said.
In 2017, Osceola's sister Jessica Osceola received press from NPR. Jessica Osceola created a sculpture titled "Not Yours, Not Ours, Not for Sale." At the time, she was addressing frustration over those who copied Seminole patchworking without acknowledging the source of inspiration. In particular, Jessica Osceola was addressing designer Donna Karan.
'You're not just inspired by, you're just replicating'
Marissa Osceola, like Zepeda, takes issue with the pieces produced by Ulla Johnson.
“At a certain point, you’re not just inspired by, you’re just replicating,” she said.
She likened it to taking the food out of the mouths of the people who produce Seminole crafts for a living.
It’s why she filed a complaint with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which falls under the U.S. Department of the Interior. It oversees the implementation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.
According to the Board’s website, the act “is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.”
Ulla Johnson as a brand responded to the complaint in a statement dated Jan. 13: “We have been made aware of recent issues raised with respect to certain Seminole inspired pieces within our Resort 2020 collection which allegedly are being offered in violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. We respectfully disagree."
The statement continues: “Our goal has always been in the service of cultural celebration not appropriation. The honoring, preservation, and evolution of global craft and traditional techniques sit at the very heart of the Ulla Johnson brand.”
Brand spokeswoman Federica Parruccini wrote in an email that the Ulla Johnson team made phone calls and visits to “various Seminole organizations in Florida” in attempts to directly hire Seminole seamstresses to create the pieces for Ulla Johnson.
“We unfortunately did not receive any response,” Parruccini wrote.
Both Osceola and Zepeda said they were not aware of anybody who had been contacted by Ulla Johnson to create the pieces.
Zepeda said it felt like the brand was saying, “You people aren’t good enough to preserve your own culture.”
The board director, Meridith Stanton, could not comment on the specifics of the complaint filed against Ulla Johnson as it is ongoing.
Cultural appropriation, in general, is “devastating on various levels," Stanton said — including to the artist and to the consumer who thinks they’re getting an authentic product.
Stanton suggested consumers ask plenty of questions to learn about what they’re purchasing.
“The educated consumer is the best consumer,” she said. “You wouldn’t buy a Volvo without really knowing it’s a Volvo.”
Zepeda was in contact with Ulla Johnson CEO Donata Minelli via email and didn’t find the dialogue to be helpful.
“We’re stuck in this in-between,” Zepeda said. “They have not made any efforts to resolve the problem.”
Zepeda said that anybody who is interested in purchasing Seminole patchwork does so directly from the tribe. Zepeda said nobody heard from the brand until the Resort 2020 collection was already released.
Zepeda also said some people in the Seminole community will not sell to those outside of the community, while others will sell their patchwork to anybody.
"Everybody feels differently about it," she said.
Osceola pointed to an ongoing problem of cultural appropriation.
“It’s not the first and it’s not the last,” she said. “You just do what you can when you see it.”
To file a complaint with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, call (888) ART-FAKE or visit doi.gov/iacb.
This story originally published to naplesnews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.