It’s no secret that despite a call for diversity and representation, global beauty standards remain unshakably eurocentric. And no one knows this better than Native women.
In asking women to be “real” or authentic, brands and businesses evade culpability by putting the onus of emotional labor on the women themselves. Fully aware that entrenched social realities (like gender conditioning and racial perceptions) lie outside their sphere of influence, mainstream brands continue to pretend that it is women who get in the way of their own potential. In truth, their messaging is carefully calibrated to the chatter of focus groups, informed by hard data on demographics and driven solely by profitability.
This all applies to Native women, who are often penalized for presenting their real selves to the world. They are viewed as either promiscuous or pious, abducted and murdered in astounding numbers. They are subjected to the twin indignities of invisibilization and appropriation. The “squaw” caricature puts them in beaded moccasins, fringed suede and long, straight, feather-topped hair in a deliberate erasure of the distinct community markers that differentiate tribes. (By the way, squaw is not even a word.)
Films and popular culture add insult to injury by distorting and homogenizing Native cultures as a whole, parading Natives as warriors or shamans with inscrutable leathery faces. Resigned to a permanent mythologization, Natives “dimly accept the role of spiritual masters and first environmentalists,” notes Comanche writer and Smithsonian curator Paul Chaat Smith in his seminal book of essays, ”Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong.”
In 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren released the results of a DNA test to bolster a decades-old claim to Native ancestry. The move backfired to widespread condemnation from Native scholars and representatives. Colonial-era blood quantum laws were framed to racialize people in their own homeland and strip them of treaty-sanctioned rights to land and resources as bloodlines naturally diluted over time. In using the same principle to legitimize her political identity, Warren’s white privilege contrasted brutally with the family histories of her native constituents. She apologized earlier this year, perhaps concerned that the issue could derail her campaign.
Among the first to call Warren out was Kim TallBear, professor at the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has been categorical in her criticism of the white power structure. She grew up in a reservation border town in rural South Dakota and told HuffPost that since “most of the white people who settled in Dakota lands were lighter complexioned, this became the standard for attractiveness. The Native people who better fit white standards of beauty encountered less explicit racism, although these less violent forms of racism (e.g. ‘You’re so pretty/smart for a Native girl!’) are also obviously damaging.”
Today, Native beauty influencers like Tiffany Black (Diné), WarPaint By Tabby (Diné) and Jennifer Bear Medicine (Apsaalooke/Paiute) are fighting back. They use their makeup to tell community legends and histories, and highlight injustices. Well-loved community icons Hannah Manuelito, Wabanoonkwe (Anishinaabe) and Delainee Richelle (Cree) keep their identities central to playful explorations of current beauty trends. In her paper on Indigenous identity in the 21st century, Sandy Grande, director of the Center of The Critical Study of Race and Ethnicity at Connecticut College, writes that for Indigenous people, “identity is as much a matter of responsibility as it is genetics.” It is “relational ― not only influenced by one’s own internal understanding of who one is, but also by the Indigenous community to which one belongs,” she writes.
Though distinct and different for each tribe and First Nation, all Native beauty philosophies emphasize respect for the earth. Sacred to community wellness traditions, plants like sage and sweetgrass reinforce connection with the land, the locus of Natives’ settler-colonial trauma and the site of their healing. As a concept, beauty is subsumed by wellness and goes beyond appearance or aesthetics to a spiritual understanding of one’s place in the world.
The Diné philosophy of Hózhó, for example, recognizes the integrated nature of existence and urges the tribe to “walk in beauty” by constantly balancing their inner landscape to sublime, harmonious ends. This does not mean Native women can’t or don’t engage with the trends of the day. Beauty icon Sage Honga (Hualapai, Hopi, Diné) has demonstrated how Indigenous women have always adapted the prevailing style idiom and made it fiercely their own. Their beauty and style efforts and ways of self-presentation can be summed up as “moving forward as contemporary peoples while sustaining traditional values,” a view shared by Grande.
For their part, Native-owned businesses are steadily decolonizing the beauty and skin care space, building what America’s first Native Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee, Creek Nation) calls “something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people.”
Below, find 14 Native-owned beauty and skin care brands and the philosophies behind them.
Founder Brittney Amitrano (Hidatsa, Lakota, African American) knows exactly what works for lips across a spectrum of skin tones. Her phenomenal formulations have a lacquering, balancing effect, making lips look professionally done. She’s curated a bunch of standout skin-inclusive shades that absolutely anyone can wear with confidence.
Arianna Lauren of Quw’utsun’ Made does exquisite fragrances, salves, balms and mists with soothing qualities. Packed with plant extracts and good for all ages, the products are perfect for mindful self-care. Invest in the all-purpose Infused Oil Roll Ons, Salish Forest Oil and Rosewater Nettle Mist for a minimalist yet indulgent regimen.
This young brand creates luxurious yet affordable makeup brushes and eyelashes and has a patent pending on its brush technology. Its beginnings lay in a disappointment all too familiar to Indigenous entrepreneurs. Founder Cece Meadows remembers chafing at finding no Native presence in the panels of a beauty show, not even a token one. “When I voiced my frustration to the organization, I was asked what ‘Indigenous’ meant,” she told HuffPost. Today, community informs everything she does. Her sturdy, ergonomically-designed brush sets are integral to the glorious cut creases and glistening cheekbones favored by Native makeup artists.
One look at Joella Hogan’s line of utterly unique soaps makes you want to inhale the speckled, buttery bars. The soaps have a poetic, old-world quality; it’s easy to imagine the ancients using them to wash in crisp mountain streams. Authenticity is vital to the process ― Hogan uses only locally grown, natural ingredients. There’s a reason these thoughtfully packaged bathing staples have lived in homes in her native Mayo for over 20 years. The Galaxy, Yukon Gin and Tonic, Herbal Sea and Aurora’s Passion soaps are a great way to elevate your daily bathing ritual and do good by your skin. If you’re understandably unable to pick a favorite, the company packs mini bars of each type into reusable jars.
Founder Shí-Fawn Chee’s (Diné) frustration with “Native-themed” product design on beauty shelves (“Pendleton patterns and feathers and arrows … too cliché!”) is why she created her makeup brand. Her products steer clear of drama to deliver subtle, polished results. The eyeshadows transfer in a shimmery wash that catches the light prettily. The Arizona Sunset, Skoden and Iva eye palettes are timeless, and the autumnal Asdząąn Glow Highlighter palette should live permanently in your makeup bag.
Handmade in small, fragrant batches, this potent plant-based skin care line is grounded in Squamish tradition. Founder Leigh Joseph’s admiration for her people’s resilience is evident. She puts people-land relationships front and center of her work, visually highlighting ancient horticultural rituals that continue to nourish her people to this day. “An image of a Squamish woman harvesting wild rose acknowledges our ongoing Indigenous presence. It’s an act of resistance, a way of showing we are still here — drawing beauty from our relationship with the land as we have for thousands of years,” she told HuffPost. Use the Kw’enikway Wild Poplar Whipped Body Butter for slick, soft skin. Massage the Kalkay Wild Rose Facial Oil or Tewin’xw Cranberry Rose Serum into your face for a drenched glow that makes concealer redundant.
The brand pulls serious weight with high-impact eye and lip colors suited to statement makeup. The Neptune and Luna glosses give your lips a wet iridescence while the Space Suit and Zodiac glosses pack a glittery punch. Heritage is important to founder Vanessa Billie (Seminole, Mexican). “We use natural and mineral infused ingredients just as my ancestors would to enhance inner beauty,” she told HuffPost. “The designs you see on our packaging are influenced by the traditional diamond patchwork that our Seminole tribe makes.”
The company makes hand-poured lipsticks, glosses, highlighters and eyeshadows in unusual colors. Natural ingredients are blended into a tight edit of creamy, pigmented products. The colors are on-trend yet endlessly bankable, especially for darker complexions. In her 22 years of experience in cosmetology, founder Amy Thoman (Chippewa Cree, Rosebud Sioux) struggled to find products for her skin color. She founded the company to do something about it. The eyeshadows in Walnut and Orchid and the glosses in Marigold and Hazel are stunning. The liquid highlighters melt right into your skin and complement many skin tones.
Founder Ahsaki Baa Lafrance-Chachere (Navajo, African American) wanted to show the world what a rez kid can do. “Brands appropriate our culture for profit, position us as trendy,” she told HuffPost. “I want to set the narrative straight: our culture is not a ‘trend.’ Ah-Shi means ‘this is me, this is mine.’” The skin care line is non-comedogenic and fragrance-free. The Moisture serum’s softening, priming properties make it a great base for makeup. An arsenal of excellent eyebrow products guarantees clean, natural-looking brows. The sophisticated eye colors can be worn day or night, and any one of the clutch of sensational red lip colors is perfect for festive makeup.
Tara Tarbell (Mohawk) launched her skin care line on the heels of recovery from cancer. Niawen is Mohawk for “to give thanks.” The brand’s powerful but gentle formulations coddle problem skin back to health. The Citrus-Rose Mist calms sun-reddened skin and preps facial skin for moisturizing. The Willow Sage Cleanser and Clear Skin Serum declog and settle oily, rashy skin. Sustained usage should give you a fresh, scrubbed-clean glow.
This farmers market darling turns local wild herbs and flowers into delectable lotions. The silky Sage Pine Lotion is a bestseller. The Mountain Spring Bath Salt packs three salts, five pure essential oils and handpicked wild roses from the Rocky Mountain region for decadent bath time. “We are now in the process of building a workshop and store from the ground up in my husband’s hometown of Taos, New Mexico,” Jacquelene McHorse, one half of the founder couple, told HuffPost.
Michaelee Lazore (Mohawk, Paiute) started Sequoia to uncomplicate skin care and return it to its traditional roots. Medicinal plants and ancestral legends play starring roles in her exhaustively researched formulations. The wholesome handmade soaps are almost too pretty to use. The Skywoman Body Scrub is a lovely way to wash the day off; the product turns to lotion on contact with water while its slow-dissolving sugar crystals gently exfoliate. The Sweetgrass Lotion is best slathered on just-bathed skin.
Cult favorite Cheekbone Beauty deploys color and texture to exceptional results; its lip colors are sexy yet wearable and sit beautifully on warm skin tones. The Warrior Women Collection of lip colors celebrates indigenous excellence; shades are named after women like Autumn Peltier and Melina Laboucan-Massimo, ecowarriors and Native rights activists. The Stardust highlighter palette is multiuse and achieves an organic-looking glow. In the spirit of sharing and resilience, founder Jenn Harper (Ojibwe, Northwest Angle #33, Ontario) keeps things candid on social media ― she speaks of overcoming addiction, battling childhood shame at her identity and believing that the First Nations deserve proper representation in the beauty industry.
Haipazaza Phezuta, which means “medicine soaps” in the Lakota language, makes rich, aromatic soaps and body butters that look good enough to eat. The business began when the founders, the Tolman family, decided to treat their children’s eczema with traditional Lakota remedies. “Our motto is, ‘Share the Good Medicine,’” they told HuffPost. “We create products that are suitable for our own children and for anyone who uses them.” Enriched with goats’ milk, the beautiful marbled bars promise a happy, healing bathing experience.
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