Why Orenda Tribe Changed Its Name at the Peak of Its Success | News & Analysis

Why Orenda Tribe Changed Its Name at the Peak of Its Success | News & Analysis

Few things do more to help a brand stand out than a founder with a compelling backstory. Amy Denet Deal and her brand 4Kinship — formerly Orenda Tribe — have that in spades.

In 2015, the designer left a career in fashion, including design roles at Puma and Reebok, to sell her own creations, mostly upcycled and vintage pieces that retail for up to $800. Born to a Diné, or Navajo, mother but raised by a non-Native family, Denet Deal reconnected with her roots as her brand gained traction, helping Orenda Tribe stand out in a sea of sustainable fashion labels. During the pandemic, she used her growing profile to raise money and supplies for organisations on the Navajo Reservation, enlisting the help of celebrity fans, including the singer Jewel.

Denet Deal, was featured on “The Today Show” and profiled by Vogue, an unusual level of exposure for a small, self-funded fashion brand based far from fashion’s capitals in Albuquerque, N.M. Between April 2020 and April 2021, traffic to Orenda Tribe’s website more than tripled, according to Similarweb.

But the increased attention also brought new scrutiny. The brand and its founder had their critics, including some Diné who felt Denet Deal was putting a glossy sheen on problems facing Native Americans. Online detractors objected to how the brand described its merchandise, its high prices and to the label’s name itself: Orenda is a spiritual term originating with the Haudenosaunee people, who trace their origins to the northeast of North America, thousands of miles from Navajo Nation.

Denet Deal has not responded publicly to individual social media critiques but at the end of March and in April, she published several personal messages about moving forward and the decision to rebrand her label as 4Kinship on her website.

An image from a recent 4Kinship collection. 4Kinship

In an interview with BoF, she said she was disconnected from “a lot of the dark side of what’s going on with Indigenous cultures worldwide, a lot of intergenerational grief and trauma” after spending most of her life as an outsider. She said connecting with her family’s community has been more challenging than she thought it would be, describing herself as naive.

“I’m constantly going to be letting go of the way that I was brought up in a non-native public school in a non-native family, and then embracing who I am as an Indigenous person,” said Denet Deal, who previously went as Amy Yeung and changed her last name in order to “circle back” to her family after her mother died in 2021.

Orenda Tribe’s rapid rise, and the controversies that followed it, raises complicated questions without clear answers: is Denet Deal an Indigenous designer who, having beaten the odds to find success late-in-life in fashion on her own terms, used her business success to help her community? Or is she an outsider profiting off of a historically disadvantaged group?

These questions are especially fraught within Native American communities because of the long history of cultural appropriation and stereotyping from outsiders, whether in Hollywood movies or runway collections. That history runs right up to the present: earlier this month, Mexico’s Ministry of Culture accused Zara and Anthropologie of using patterns from Indigenous groups without acknowledgement or compensation.

“There still is an inequitable exchange of power between settlers and Indigenous peoples,” said Jolene Rickard, associate professor at Cornell University in the department of History of Art and Visual Studies and the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. Rickard is a citizen of the Tuscarora Nation, part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. “Indigenous peoples are pushing back … defending their space, defending their right to be represented the way they choose to be represented.”

Within Native communities, many artists think carefully about how their heritage and identity manifest in their work and in the work of their peers, said Jessica Stago, co-founder of Change Labs, a business incubator serving Dine and Hopi communities.

Native artists are also wary of how non-Native publications, retailers or museums use trauma narratives to portray their stories or sell products to non-Native shoppers, she said. That suspicion can extend to Indigenous artists perceived as deliberately feeding those narratives.

“We are always harder on ourselves,” Stago said.

It’s rare for that conversation to reach the outside world, however.

Origins

Denet Deal was adopted at an early age and raised in rural Indiana, she said, aware of her Diné heritage through her birth mother, but disconnected from it. She pursued a career in fashion, studying design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s and then spent 30 years in design and merchandising for activewear and apparel brands.

About a decade ago, while living in California, Denet Deal said she decided to leave corporate fashion. In 2015, she launched Orenda Tribe with the tagline “handcrafted in California.” She sold her collection of repurposed vintage pieces online and through pop-up shops at vintage stores and at craft fairs.

She had a knack for anticipating trends. Orenda Tribe launched as the upcycling movement was gaining traction in the fashion world. A line of hand-dyed vintage jumpsuits was an early hit, arriving ahead of tie-dye’s resurgence in the mainstream. Denet Deal produced the pieces herself, and also worked with artists in Southern California’s crafting community. Her daughter Lily Yeung, a model and designer, was and remains actively involved.

Throughout this period, Denet Deal started “stepping back into my Indigeneity,” she told BoF. She reconnected with her birth family in 2007 and started learning about her Diné history and culture.

In the early years, Orenda Tribe drew on Denet Deal’s personal story only obliquely.

On Instagram, she marketed her colourful label with wanderlust-inducing images, including many featuring her daughter against sweeping desert landscapes, documenting her travels through Arizona and New Mexico. The brand’s vocabulary emphasised positive thinking, gratitude and spiritual inspiration. In a 2017 interview with a local paper in Palm Springs, Calif., she described a wide range of inspirations. She sourced fabrics from Bali to Argentina.

“I don’t even really feel, at that time, [that] I identified as Navajo or Diné because I didn’t know anyone,” Denet Deal told BoF.

But her heritage started playing a more central role in the brand’s identity in 2018, when she traveled to New Mexico more frequently and started encouraging her followers to protest fracking near Chaco Canyon, near the border of the Navajo Nation. Her brand was featured in Refinery29 that year as part of an article on Indigenous entrepreneurs, in one of her first profiles by a fashion publication. The following year, she moved to Albuquerque, where she opened a store in her studio space and also sold products from other Native artists. Denet Deal said she has sold pieces from close to 50 native artists since moving to New Mexico.

Orenda Tribe’s combination of inspirational copy, striking imagery and charitable efforts is hardly unusual for upscale fashion brands. But the approach stands out within the Native fashion market. In the Diné community, designers or artisans are often divided between those that sell within the community, and those that sell to outsiders, who are often pressured to rely on stereotypes to market their work, said Stago. Few artists have the resources to build a company on their own terms like Orenda Tribe while staying within their communities, she said, because of lack of access to the internet and other resources needed to market products.

“Her contacts and her network has made her a lot more successful than other Diné artists that have been trying to do this for years,” said Stago.

Native Americans in the US face a wide range of hardships that connect back to their brutal treatment by European and American settlers, which many historians describe as genocide. Indigenous peoples continue to struggle with the financial, physical and psychological aftereffects of centuries of murder, forced removals and disenfranchisement. Today, many communities face lack of funding in their school and health systems, as well as lack of access to running water, electricity and internet.

These hardships were exacerbated by the pandemic, during which several tribes joined together to sue the US Treasury Department for withholding Covid-19 relief funds. The Navajo Nation was an early Covid-19 hotspot last year, and Native populations have seen higher infection and death rates throughout the pandemic.

After the pandemic started, Denet Deal hosted an online charity auction and a concert fundraiser with Jewel (an outspoken fan of the brand turned collaborator) that raised $200,000. With a group of other volunteers, Denet Deal raised $835,000 and distributed more than one million PPE units, more than one million servings of food and supported women’s shelters and schools on the reservation in 2020. This year, Orenda Tribe started raising money to build a skatepark on the Navajo reservation, which got skateboarder Tony Hawk’s support online.

The efforts brought the brand more national press, including the segments on television with “The Today Show” and “Tamron Hall,” and profiles with Vogue, Refinery29 and Condé Nast Traveler.

Online Scrutiny

In February 2020, Orenda Tribe posted a message to Anthropologie on Instagram, featuring an image of a multi-coloured blouse stocked by the retailer that looked similar to one Orenda Tribe had first sold more than a year earlier.

The caption asked Anthropologie to donate to the skatepark and encouraged followers to let the retailer “know how you feel.” The Instagram account Diet Prada posted about it soon after, drawing more attention.

Anthropologie pulled the blouses and donated them to the Transgender Resource Center in New Mexico, Denet Deal said, and also donated to Jewel’s youth foundation and Orenda Tribe’s skatepark project. A representative for Anthropologie did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

If you are promoting your project from a place that is coming from within community, you really need to understand what you’re getting into.

The incident, along with press attention around Denet Deal’s charity efforts, drew new attention to Orenda Tribe itself — and specifically, its name.

Denet Deal said she came across the word “orenda” before she started her brand and found it inspiring, understanding it to mean a powerful spiritual force. She said she hadn’t known the word’s Haudenosaunee origins or full meaning at the time.

Dave Smoke-McCluskey, a Mohawk chef from South Carolina discovered Orenda Tribe on Instagram after the Anthropologie incident. He was among the most vocal of a contingent of online users who saw both its application in a commercial context and its use by someone from a different culture as inappropriate. (The Mohawk Nation is a part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.)

He said he has seen “orenda” turn into a buzzword in recent years, “but it’s all been about branding, it’s all been about selling this neo-hippie kind of thing.” He found Orenda Tribe’s complaint to Anthropologie to be hypocritical.

“Here’s this pretender harassing another pretender,” he said.

Smoke-McCluskey has never spoken to Denet Deal directly, though he said he has tried to reach her via Instagram messages. In March, he started a change.org petition asking Orenda Tribe to change its name, which has amassed about 2,000 signatures. (As part of his online activism, Smoke-McCluskey has reached out to about 25 other companies ranging from a winery to a digital magazine that use “orenda” in their names, and six are in the process or have already changed their name, he said.)

Orenda Tribe has had other detractors.

In early February, a group of Indigenous artists organised by Meek Watchman, a Diné poet and artist who lives in the Navajo Nation, published an open letter on Instagram outlining objections to the brand. They described what they termed a disrespectful and dangerous approach to building a business connected to Indigenous communities. To date, the video of Watchman reading the letter on Instagram has more than 4,000 views and 40 comments.

The letter was sparked by Denet Deal’s work with an Alaskan-based Indigenous jewellery designer, Maka Monture Päki. Orenda Tribe had sold a pair of earrings from the designer on its site, where they were described as hand-carved. Some Native artists felt this wording implied Monture Päki had carved the oxbone portion of the earrings herself. This implication is significant in a culture where artists with specialised skills are wary of being uncredited or erased.

“Maka had never advertised or said she herself had carved the controversial earrings,” said Denet Deal via email. “It’s very common for many Indigenous artists to create using jewellery supplies in their designs.” Monture Päki said told BoF she did not intend to claim she herself had hand-carved the earrings. “This miscommunication wasn’t intentional,” she said.

The complaints in Watchman’s letter extended to criticism of Orenda Tribe’s high price points and limited size ranges, which some saw as inaccessible for Indigenous customers. Denet Deal told BoF that the brand’s sizing and pricing is reflective of its largely vintage dependent products and limited artisanal production methods.

The letter also objected to the company’s status as a for-profit company while raising money for organisations on the Navajo Reservation, and for the brand’s use of what they called “toxic positivity,” an idea that optimism can be harmful when it overlooks real and difficult feelings or experiences.

“It’s romanticising Indigenous culture,” said Watchman. “And that’s not what we need … We don’t need these nonprofits, these entities, these organisations off reservations, off Navajo land, raising money for us and then telling us how to spend it.”

A New Name

Denet Deal described the last few months as “a deeply chaotic time.”

“I can’t see it as hateful words, I can only see it as cries from ancestors — it’s an intergenerational grief that comes out in this way,” she said.

She has not publicly acknowledged these critics individually on social media, and both Watchman and Smoke-McCluskey said they are blocked by the brand’s account on Instagram.

I now define myself as a Diné woman.

Denet Deal said that she reached out to an Oneida linguist to learn the history and meaning of the word she had chosen years ago “completely naively and innocently from a place of heart.” (The Oneida Nation is a part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.) She said she doesn’t feel social media is a productive place to have these nuanced conversations, preferring to speak to people in person when possible.

She soon decided it was necessary to change the brand’s name, a move the brand communicated in a series of Instagram posts and on its website in March and April. The first, entitled “Growth. Renewal. Rebirth” thanked the community for speaking out and explained that she was reflecting on how to evolve the brand to move forward. The statement did not include an apology and some commenters were dismayed. A day later, the brand posted another message from Denet Deal in which she apologised “to the elders, ancestors, individuals, and greater community for perpetuating the same systems of harm I say to stand firmly against.”

Denet Deal told BoF she needed to take time after the controversy to realise how much had changed for her personally since launching the brand.

“I now define myself as a Diné woman,” she said. “And doing that, I needed to rebirth my brand to lead into the future.” The brand’s new name, 4Kinship, combines the symbolic importance of the number four in Diné culture, as well as Diné word K’e, which “defines us as family,” said Denet Deal and she said refers to her likeminded family on social media, as well as her adopted and birth families.

Stago said Orenda Tribe is pushing the boundaries of what a Native-owned fashion business looks like. But missteps raise red flags.

“If you are promoting your project from a place that is coming from within community, you really need to understand what you’re getting into,” she said.

Denet Deal said she still has more learning to do but remains positive about the future of the brand and ambitious about its philanthropic potential. She is finalising the launch of a nonprofit foundation to continue to raise money for different organisations within the Diné community. She said she has also travelled to visit members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and plans to raise money for them, too.

In the meantime, raising funds for the Diné Skate Garden Project remains a priority. During Memorial Day Weekend, as part of one of its final pushes to reach its $100,000 fundraising goal, 4Kinship shoppers were encouraged to donate directly or shop an auction with all proceeds benefiting the park. But like other fashion brands, 4Kinship offered a holiday weekend shopping perk, too. Buyers could get free shipping on the brand’s latest release of vintage dresses, whether or not they donated. The code? GOSKATE.

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Op-Ed | The Cultural Appropriation Paradox

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