As the Indian Arts Research Center turns 100, it’s still inspiring Indigenous artists and visitors

By Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers



Santa Fe New Mexican


As the Indian Arts Research Center turns 100, it’s still inspiring Indigenous artists and visitors. Meet fellowship winner and designer Orlando Dugi and learn how Brian Vallo of the Pueblo Pottery Collective exhibition. Orlando Dugi didn’t find fashion. Fashion found him. It found him in the form of his grandmothers’ fingers, hand-ruching skirts and beading fan handles and gourds. It found him in the sheep corral, where wool begins, and in the raspberry bodies of cochineal bugs as they became dye. It found him in the lightning and rainbow imagery of Hero Twin stories, and in the smoke swirls and stars of nighttime ceremonies. Dugi (Diné), whose clans are Kinyaa’áanii, Tódích’íinii, Tł’izíłaní, and Tsé deeshgizhníí, has been designing high-fashion garments for a decade, and his works have been shown at Santa Fe Indian Market, the Denver Art Museum, and elsewhere. His creations, which also include beadwork and jewelry, have taken home honors from the Heard Museum Guild Art Show, Indian Market, and the Cherokee Art Show, among others. Made with silk, wool, feathers, gold thread, and crystals, Dugi’s garments are a wearable homage to the world he comes from, yet they present as mythical masterpieces. They would seem to be more at home on a Parisian runway than in the hogan where this designer’s story began. “Our ceremonies are so layered and textured, and that is how they influence my work,” says Dugi (pronounced dew-guy). “There are layers and layers of things that go into one garment.” Dugi deepens his connections to his roots as the 2022 recipient of the Rollin and Mary Ella King Native Artist Fellowship. The School for Advanced Research’s Indian Arts Research Center in Santa Fe offers three artist-in-residence fellowships annually to advance the work of established and emerging Native American artists. Recipients get a financial stipend, use of a studio, a supplies allowance, and housing if needed as they dive into the IARC’s 12,000-piece archives for inspiration. The trove’s historic Diné and prehistoric southwestern textiles will influence a garment that Dugi will create by his fellowship’s end. Dugi thinks about how Native people created clothing in the years before contact with Europeans. “Instead of me re-creating the past, I want to use the techniques from the past to create my future in clothing design,” he says. In November, Dugi speaks on his research into materials that were used in weaving, basket making, and arts precontact. These materials include yucca fiber, wild cotton, and cedar bark. “I want to study those techniques and see how I can apply them to high fashion and the clothing that I design and make,” he says. Dugi grew up between Flagstaff and his family’s sheep ranch in Gray Mountain, Arizona, where he remembers watching his grandmothers Lily, Lorraine, and Alice create clothing, beadwork, and weavings by hand. When he decided to create his first dress in 2009, he didn’t know anything about making garments aside from what he had observed. He bought a dress form and went about making a garment he had sketched out, hand sewing it the way his grandmothers had, teaching himself as he went. That dress won first place at the Santa Fe Indian Market clothing competition in 2009. His work was haute couture from the beginning. “When I started, I did everything by hand. The entire dress was hand stitched like they do in the workrooms in Paris,” says Dugi. Hand stitching, for Dugi, has always been a way to honor the memory of his grandmothers and the labor of love they put into each of their creations. But not until recently has he been explicit about the ways in which he incorporates Diné stories and lifeways into his fashion design. After a successful decade-long career as a fashion designer, Dugi debuted his first men’s line at the 100th Santa Fe Indian Market Indigenous Fashion Show. “The men’s collection is based on the Hero Twins story and the weapons they were given to defeat the monsters,” he says of his knitwear garments, made with locally sourced, processed, and spun wool and dyed with natural pigments like cochineal. The Navajo creation story tells of the Hero Twins, who were twin sons of White Shell Woman and the sun. They are known for protecting humans from monsters and evils seeking to destroy life. “The zigzag patterns represent the lightning bolt, and there is the flint armor motif in the hand-knit sweater that has diamond patterns.” Dugi focuses on evening wear and clothing for special occasions because growing up, he attended nighttime ceremonies, where he witnessed “the occasion of dressing for the Holy People, and for other people, as a sign of respect.” “People would wear all their fine jewelry and beautiful, colorful velvets and satins, and their hair was always nicely done,” he remembers. “Whatever they did, they were dressed up while doing it. So I kind of see ceremony as the equivalent of a black tie affair in Western society. That’s where the ‘ceremony’ part of my work comes in. When I say ‘ceremony,’ it’s not to literally take something and appropriate my own culture.” He has also reimagined cultural elements by placing mirrored crystal beads on silk to represent stars, by ruching white netting to suggest swirling cedar smoke, and by crisscrossing rainbowed yarn to symbolize a weapon that the sun, the Hero Twins’ father, gave to them to defeat the monsters killing their people. Over the past three years, COVID-19 has become a monster among Native American communities, which the virus has hit hard, and protecting and healing his people is at the forefront of Dugi’s mind. Unable to visit his family while in quarantine in Santa Fe with his partner, Kenneth Williams (Northern Arapaho/Seneca), and their cat, Valentino, Dugi started reflecting on his childhood in Gray Mountain. “The reports started coming in of so many people on the reservation dying from COVID,” Dugi says. “I’m a very, very emotional person, and I feel the stories, the songs, the prayers so deeply and so much deeper in our Diné language. That’s when I really started to share those feelings through my work. That’s where the Hero Twins come in and when I really started to open myself up to putting more of my own heritage and background into the clothes that I was designing and making. Healing and protection — that’s what we think of when we think of our families back home.” But, Dugi says, his hope is to “be the sparkle” that helps people see beyond the trauma narrative so often associated with Native people. He is excited to learn ancient techniques during his fellowship, such as harvesting yucca and breaking it down into weavable fibers, and then to reimagine them in a contemporary context. As he imagines his soon-to-be unveiled garment, he thinks about how, in the future, his descendants might study and learn from his work — just as he’s learning from his ancestors today. Dugi’s fellowship talk takes place on Nov. 17, 5:30–7:30 p.m., at SAR’s Dobkin Boardroom. Registration is required and seats are limited. Check for details. Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers is the owner of Silver Moon Studio, a safe space for