Fifteen Minutes This Native Jewelry Designer Combats Stereotypes Through Art
“People really want to fit Native people into a box, in this safe stereotype space. I defy every single stereotype anyone has ever held about Native people. I enjoy breaking those stereotypes, completely smashing them.”
Though it’s early on a Saturday morning, the line outside the art market snakes down the block. As I get in line, I can’t help but notice the patrons: a sea of white, elderly faces, in large hats and sensible shoes, clutching programs and coffee as they fan themselves under the desert sun.
I am the youngest one here, by at least thirty years, and likely one of the only Native people in line. I’ve attended this market for the last five years as a guest, but this early morning “members only” line provides a different view, a window into who these markets are really for, and—as a result—who controls the world of Native art.
Once inside, I head for Kristen’s booth. Kristen Dorsey is a young Chickasaw metalsmith who has been making Southeastern-inspired jewelry designs for about ten years, since she was in college. She runs her own business, Kristen Dorsey Designs, based in Los Angeles. I’ve been a fan, friend, and collector of her work since 2012, when I first encountered her work featured on Beyond Buckskin , a blog about Native fashion.
I was thrilled when I first saw Kristen’s designs. They were so different from the jewelry I was used to buying at powwows and other Native art shows. Her pieces spoke to me and my culture in a way I wasn’t used to seeing, since the Native metalwork market is often dominated by Southwestern design.
I’m a Cherokee woman and my tribal homelands cover the hills and valleys of the southeast of what is currently the United States, as do Kristen’s. To find Kristen’s jewelry, a way to represent my tribe’s Southeastern roots, has been a gift.
The large tent is packed tightly with artists setting up their folding tables. At her booth, Kristen is arranging necklaces. She’s an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, which is based in Oklahoma after forced removal from the Southeast. But, like me, she grew up in Southern California. She has dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slender, muscular build from her second love—surfing.
Because of her outward appearance and home in Los Angeles, Kristen’s journey through the world of Native arts has been constantly met with skepticism, questions about her identity, and marginalization from both non-Native and Native gatekeepers in the art world.
She gets “bombarded” with questions about her identity, Kristen tells me, “every single time I go in front of the public. Every single time I am at a jewelry show or at an art show. Every single time I introduce myself to non-Natives, even to certain Natives. Especially working in the southwest art shows, I get so much flack.”
When I tell her about the homogenous white masses outside, she shakes her head, smiling. “I’ve heard folks call them ‘Safari People’! Khaki shorts, a vest, floppy hat . . . and they circle slowly. We make it a game to spot them.”
The Safari People are in no short supply this morning and we begin to notice the “varieties” among them.
“You can always tell the pottery collectors,” says Kristen. “They don’t wear any jewelry. Then there are the ones who are almost wearing a costume over their safari outfit—the most turquoise and silver you’ve ever seen. Those are the Southwest jewelry collectors. They don’t usually come by my booth.”
I watch the Southwest Jewelry Safari People walk by, wearing silver concho belts, bolo ties with stones the size of a fist, and huge necklaces that almost look like they’re pulling down the fragile necks of their elderly wearers. She’s right. They nod and keep walking, or don’t even glance over.
Kristen’s work doesn’t fit the stereotypes of Native jewelry, which tend to be built off Navajo, Pueblo, and other southwestern aesthetics—such as silverwork that feature turquoise or stone and shell inlays; Navajo squash blossom necklaces with their characteristic horseshoe-shaped center designs; or designs featuring stampwork, where small images are hammered into silver using metal “stamps.”
For most non-Natives, if they think of “Indian jewelry,” and aren’t thinking of beadwork, they’re thinking of this type of design. Kirsten instead relies on her Chickasaw culture, her knowledge built through an undergraduate degree in Native American Studies and a BFA. Each of her pieces is deeply researched, tells a story, and is grounded in some aspect of her people.
Each of her pieces is deeply researched, tells a story, and is grounded in some aspect of her people.
One of my favorite pieces I own from Kristen is a large rose gold statement cuff bracelet, called the “sky serpent cuff.” In southeastern tribal traditions, we have stories of a feathered serpent who lives in the sky world, who is responsible for thunderstorms and waterways. Kristen hand-sculpted this bracelet to have scales, but scales that somehow are also reminiscent of feathers. The cuff narrows to a scalloped triangular point on my wrist, making me feel like Cherokee Wonder Woman when I wear it. I tell the story behind the design to everyone who compliments the bracelet, making it a moment of cultural connection—as well as a beautiful cuff .
But the swirling lines and modern curves of Kristen’s work don’t fit the mold created largely by the white collectors of Native jewelry. She knows that most patrons and prospective customers have a very narrow idea of what “Native” jewelry entails, but enjoys breaking those preconceived ideas.
“People really want jewelry to fit into a box, and Native people into a box, in this safe stereotype space,” says Kristen. “I have fun, because I defy every single stereotype anyone has ever held about a Native jeweler, or Native art, or Native people. And so, I enjoy just breaking those stereotypes, just completely smashing them.”
But her stereotype-breaking means that this art world, created by non-Native outsiders, sometimes doesn’t understand her work. Kristen often uses a highly challenging technique for her work, called chasing and repoussé, in which she sculpts metal bit by tiny bit through hammering into a bowl of pitch, working the metal from both sides repeatedly until the final image is sculpted . However, there is also another southwestern technique referred to as repoussé, but it involves much less technical stamp work. This is what most judges at these art markets are familiar with, which can cause problems.
Kristen gets rejected from shows “quite often” and feels it is because they “don’t they think it’s ‘Native enough,’ because they don’t understand what it is.” They don’t understand her techniques and the skill and time involved in creating each piece. For someone trying to make her living with her work, to stay grounded in the techniques and aesthetics of her own Native community, this cycle is frustrating for Kristen.
When I ask her what the biggest challenge in marketing her work is, she answers with a laugh: “Turquoise.”
Photograph courtesy of Kristen Dorsey
We don’t have to wait long for the questions to start. It’s 9:13 a.m., just thirteen minutes after the gates have opened, and a woman walks up to the booth.
“Are you from Oklahoma?” she asks, but directs her question to Brittany, Kristen’s booth assistant and friend, who is Navajo and “looks” more Native American, whatever that may mean.
Brittany looks confused, and points to Kristen. “She’s the artist.”
The woman then turns to Kristen with the same question. Kristen shakes her head, “No, I’m from Los Angeles, actually.”
“Oh, you’re from LA . . . ” the woman looks skeptical. I brace myself, wondering what the woman will say next. But it turns out she’s Chickasaw too, and has been looking for fellow tribal members at the market.
Kristen launches into what is clearly a well-practiced reply. She notes who her family in Oklahoma are, their family name, and where they live. She points out the ways Chickasaw culture is woven into her pieces, she mentions she interned at the Cultural Center in Oklahoma, and that they sell her work there.
The woman seems satisfied with her reply, smiles, makes small talk, and ends with “You’ve done very well! Very nice to have met you.” She points to her program, “I marked all the Chickasaws in here and wanted to come see.”
Kristen laughs. “I don’t think there are many of us here!”
The woman continues on with a small wave.
After the interaction, Kristen smiles. “I don’t often meet other Chickasaws. I like that she knew where she was going. A woman on a mission.”
“It’s so funny,” Brittany says, laughing, “how everyone always thinks I’m the artist. Like, I’m just sitting here!”
By 10 a.m., there’s a steady stream of folks stopping by to peruse and shop. The questions continue about Kristen’s work and appearance, and I’m constantly impressed with the ways she takes it in stride. Kristen takes the time to educate with each interaction, telling the stories behind the pieces and the reasoning for the design decisions, adding value to the pieces as she helps customers decide.
As a woman admires a pair of earrings, Kristen points out the details. “These are turtle shells. Our people wear them for stomp dancing, our shell shakers. I call these my ‘Loksi’ four direction earrings, which means ‘turtle’ in Chickasaw, and the four directions being an important concept for our people and many other Native peoples as well.”
At one point, a tall white man approaches the table. He looks at Kristen’s banner, down at the work, and then at her. “You don’t look like a Chippewa,” he says, matter of factly.
This is not the first time Kristen has heard something like this. The boldness with which customers approach her identity astounds me, and I begin to realize how deeply these stereotypes of Native people run.
Kristen gives a slight laugh and shoots back, “That’s because I’m Chickasaw. We come in all colors, shapes, and sizes.” He nods and, after a few minutes of browsing, buys a bracelet.
Later, another man makes a comment about her light-colored eyes, and asks, “Are you a speck of Indian?”
These questions are nothing new for Kristen. She thinks about the concept of “ blood quantum ”—how much “Native blood” one possesses—often. It’s a theme that plays out in some of her work. She has a striking one-of-a-kind necklace she calls “Blood Bling,” which is a photo-etching of her mother’s Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card.
The CDIB is the size of a business card and etched in fine silver, framed in a baroque-style bronze frame, on a heavy gold plated chain. Around the frame are small red, white, and blue cubic zirconia, symbolizing American flag colors. Kristen purposely made the necklace look overly European in style as commentary on the origins of the concept, while the fake stones and heavy imitation gold are meant to point out how superficial this system really is.
Photograph courtesy of Kristen Dorsey
It’s a piece Kristen only puts out sometimes, when she “has the energy,” because it requires a lot of educating. She says it’s “difficult in the context of a show, because people have such a short attention span.” But she has developed a way to break down the complexities of blood quantum and colonialism in “the most succinct response so they can process it.”
More than once today she’s launched into this quick American colonization history lesson.
“How much are you?”
“I don’t go by blood quantum, because it’s a European system of genocide,” says Kristen. “Blood quantum is a non-Native concept. We go by lineal descent. In the 1830s, after removal, the Dawes commission . . . ”
Blood quantum haunted her through her younger life. She tells me stories of her fear growing up, of sharing her heritage with strangers, worried they would dismiss or “discredit her in some way” if they found out about her “low” blood quantum. It wasn’t until college, when a meeting with a Native Studies faculty member made her change her mindset.
Kristen told the professor, “I’m Chickasaw, but I don’t tell anyone, because I have a low blood quantum.”
The faculty member immediately validated her identity, telling her it didn’t matter how much her blood quantum was—she was still Native. For Kristen, this moment was life-changing, since it was the first time she had felt truly seen as a Native person.
“Aside from my immediate family, that was the first time I was validated,” Kristen says. “Like, all of me. As a whole human being. It’s so powerful, because our ancestors, especially our southeastern peoples, they survived so much pain and suffering, and they wanted us to be here. They wanted us to celebrate our heritage and to keep it alive.”
It was through learning about the history of blood quantum that she was finally able to let go of the shame she felt about her own fraction. She now sees it as her mission to educate as many people as possible, both Native and non-Native, about this history so they too can let it go.
“It was an invention of the American government and a tool for assimilation, and a tool for basically breeding us out,” she tells me. To Kristen, learning about that history was empowering. She decided, “Screw blood quantum! It doesn’t strengthen us. And if we give into it, we give into what the government wanted in the first place.”
So Kristen tackles these difficult themes head-on in her work, inviting the questions, giving stern lectures to those who misstep, and each day growing more confident in her own identity. But it’s not just an interest in correcting history that drives her work and themes, Kristen sees it as a responsibility.
“I thought about it, and if I don’t do things to honor my tribal heritage, then it’s a dishonor to my ancestors,” she says. “My direct ancestors, who were fighting so hard for me to have the luxury of being a citizen of the Chickasaw nation. So I think it’s one of the most important Native topics, but it’s never talked about.”
Despite the challenges to her identity, Kristen also is acutely aware of her own privilege in these spaces: “ I pass as white, therefore benefit from white privilege. As a white-passing person, it is my responsibility to try to actively dismantle this unfair system.”
“I pass as white, therefore benefit from white privilege. As a white-passing person, it is my responsibility to try to actively dismantle this unfair system.”
Kristen tries to navigate that complicated position with humility and a feeling of responsibility “ to combat stereotypes of Native people, to not use my whiteness to shy away from difficult discussions and confrontations with other white people,” and to uplift other Indigenous voices as well.
Later that day, a Native law student comes up to the booth to say hello. She’s Choctaw, another Southeastern tribe, and, much like me, loves that Kristen’s work allows her to represent her heritage.
We chat for a bit and she sees Blood Bling. She picks it up and Kristen tells her its story. The law student gets emotional as she turns the piece over in her hands, her eyes filling with tears. She sets it down and pulls a card out of her wallet.
“I whited out the blood quantum on my enrollment card,” said the law student. “I hated looking at it. I hated people asking me about it. I didn’t want that little piece of colonization on my card.”
There are so many tensions in this place, in this art world, in Kristen’s lived experiences. This market and all those like it were created to cater to a non-Native audience. At its heart, it is a transactional space where Native artists are selling their art to consumers. This is the part of the market that brings out much of my discomfort.
I can’t stop thinking about the interaction at the booth next to Kristen’s, the booth of a female Pueblo potter. A middle-aged white man and his elderly father purchased a gorgeous pot, one I’d been gazing at all day. I couldn’t hear the beginnings of their interaction, but after he handed her the check and she put out her hand for a handshake, he scoffed. He gestured toward his father with a smirk.
“For $6,000,” he said, “I want my old man to get a hug.”
Many of these patrons are buying Native art as a way of owning a piece of “authentic” Native America. With that comes the uncomfortable knowledge that they feel they are owning their own piece of the artist themselves in that transaction.
Kristen and her work are living resistance to the non-Native standards of authenticity, the highly regulated space of the art market, and the stereotypes that keep Native jewelry in narrow boxes. She is directly challenging the normalized logics of blood quantum and the accepted norms of Native art and Native artists.
The current collection Kristen has on display is her Panther Woman collection. She was a Chickasaw battle strategist and an important warrior figure for her community, one who only exists in oral tradition because the written accounts, written by outsiders, erase her presence. The collection includes beautiful shield shapes, replicated on rings, pendants, and cuff bracelets.
“I wanted to celebrate her and use her as an example of female leadership,” explains Kristen, “and how, as Chickasaw women, we are the guardians of our communities. We will defend our communities. We have a lot of other stories similar to that—you don’t want to mess with a Chickasaw woman.”
Photograph courtesy of Kristen Dorsey
I think about the symbolism of this collection and the power of the Chickasaw woman behind the booth. When I ask Kristen about the future of her business, her first answer isn’t about increasing her output or hiring new employees. It’s about her people.
“I want to become a leader, an ambassador for my tribe, for our culture, and create other opportunities for other southeastern artists where there aren’t any opportunities or awareness. I hope that the work I do will break down a few barriers for the next generation of Chickasaw artists. I just want to be a good ancestor. ”