Quannah Chasinghorse - Native American Model and Climate Activist

Quannah Chasinghorse - Native American Model and Climate Activist

Quannah Chasinghorse is a Native American model. Born on Navajo Nation land in Tuba City, Arizona, she is a member of the Hän Gwich'in (Alaska) on her mother's side, and Lakota Sicangu-Oglala of the Rosebud Indian Reservation (South Dakota) on her father's side.

Chasinghorse is a fourth-generation land steward for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a vast 20-million-acre ecosystem threatened by fossil fuel extraction. She is also a member of the Alaska Wildlife League. She wishes that future generations would not have to fight anymore.

"I’m extremely passionate about the [activism] work that I do. I get Native youth reaching out to me and telling me that I inspire them to use their voice, and to look more into their identity as an Indigenous person too."

Along with her mother, Jody Potts, regional director of the Native Movement and a board member of the Alaska Wildlife League , they are taking this fight from coast to coast in the United States. "I grew up watching my mother work so hard for her people - she taught me that there is no shame in speaking out," Chasinghorse tells Vogue, which features her in the October 2021 issue.

Moreover, she values her family and the women in it. "My mother had to raise me and my brothers as a single parent, and my aunts played an important role in my upbringing. I often talk about my mother and aunts and what they mean to me. These strong matriarchs showed me what real power looks like and how to use it in the best way possible."

At just 17, she became a member of the Gwich'in International Youth Council and traveled to Washington D.C., New York and Colorado. She fights against oil leases that would damage the refuge and supports HR 11-46, a bill to sustainably protect native lands. She also participates in climate protests and advocates for climate action and indigenous peoples' rights at numerous events and commissions, alongside her mother and aunts who accompany her in her struggles.

If she has decided to take this path today, it is because of the teachings of her family and her people. "From a very young age, my mother taught me about the ties that bind us to each other, to our community and to the land. As indigenous people, we do not see ourselves as separate or more important than nature. When you grow up with a connection to the land, it is natural to want to defend it, because it is part of us."

She raises awareness of many issues in indigenous territories, including climate justice, protection of sacred lands and waters, indigenous sovereignty, and the MMIWG2S (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People) movement, which was created to end violence against indigenous women.

Chasinghorse also makes a point of celebrating its heritage through indigenous fashion and promoting sustainable indigenous brands. Her vibrant wardrobe is filled with Indigenous brands such as Jamie Okuma, Thunder Voice Hat Co. and Bethany Yellowtail. She even incorporates her own cultural jewelry into shoots, seeing fashion as an effective and eye-catching way to educate and share her culture with others. "I've always wanted to represent my people in the best way possible, and now I have the chance to do so, by being on the cover of magazines and walking the runway. It's important to be someone who can change the way others see beauty, because I know a lot of girls who look like me and feel out of place."

She recently walked the runway for sustainability-focused designer Gabriela Hearst, collaborated with indigenous designers and hired indigenous models. She also partnered with clothing brand Mackage, creator of a sustainable and recycled collection, and donated to an organization supporting indigenous people around the world.

"Modeling has become another channel for my activism. It has become a platform to tell stories and highlight pressing issues. That's why it's important for me to work with designers and brands that stand for the same values of climate justice and sustainability."

Interested in fashion from a young age, she doubted she could have a career because of the lack of representation of indigenous peoples in magazines and fashion shows. "I always wanted to be a model. But growing up, I never saw any Indigenous representation in fashion or beauty. I never grew up feeling confident because of the negative stereotypes of Native Americans. But that is changing. Today, younger generations will be able to witness Indigenous excellence on magazine covers - and hopefully everywhere."

She landed her first contract in 2020, with Calvin Klein for the "One Future #ckone" campaign, and then signed with the IMG Models agency, opening the door for other indigenous women in an industry that had, until now, had little consideration for this community. Since then, she has been featured on the cover of many magazines such as Vogue Mexico, Vogue Japan and V Magazine.

Chasinghorse has become very recognizable because of her traditional Hän Gwich'in facial tattoos called Yidįįłtoo. These, which were forbidden in recent centuries, are there to commemorate the events of her life and are, as tradition requires, done by hand by a woman. His were painted by his mother.

In the October 2021 interview for Vogue, she explains that "the lines represent overcoming generational trauma. Being able to put [the tattoos] back on is a powerful thing - you feel a sense of responsibility knowing that you're carrying on a tradition that was supposed to no longer exist."

In an article she wrote herself for CNN Style, she explains, "When I was 14, I got my first facial tattoo ... in a ceremony performed to signify coming of age. It was a really special moment. I could have done it earlier, but I waited until I could better understand its meaning and sacredness [...]. The other tattoos were all part of a rite of passage. Not all indigenous people's tattoos are the same; each one tells our personal story."

Like all of her activism and impactful fashion choices, she sees her tattoos as an opportunity to educate others about a lesser known aspect of her culture. This aspect is especially important in a field like modeling, where models were once expected to have a uniform look.

At the Met Gala 2021, themed "America: A Lexicon of Fashion," Chasinghorse caused a stir on the red carpet and on social media, and her Navajo-inspired outfit went viral. It was designed and created by designer Peter Dundas, stylist Tabitha Simmons, makeup artist Gucci Westman, and one of her aunts, Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw (Miss Navajo Nation 2006), who brought silver and turquoise jewelry from her own collection for the occasion, showcasing works by Navajo artists. Refinery29 named her the "shining star" of the event, and that same week she walked in her first New York Fashion Week show.

Chasinghorse also has a special adoration for meeting new people and experiencing a variety of places through modeling. "It's what I've always wanted to do," she expresses after a shoot for Vogue magazine in Costalegre, Mexico, a "magical place. Those experiences were crazy."

She's constantly recharging her batteries on set, "listening to music, or texting my mom or aunts," but spends her free time hiking, sled dog racing and making fry bread tacos with her family. This summer, she attended a week-long fishing camp on the Yukon River, where she learned about the area's salmon migration.

By bringing some of these life experiences to the fashion world, she is making more and more people like her feel seen. "It's very important to be able to be a young native in this environment. I grew up never seeing representation - now I can be that person for many others."

Today, many young indigenous women contact her to express their joy at seeing her fashion photos in magazines. "I can't even explain the feeling I get, because it's such a powerful thing for our people to finally feel seen and heard, after such a long time without being represented in fashion. And this younger generation won't have to jump the first hurdle, but can instead walk that path with me."

For all that, while she is seeing more inclusion in fashion in regards to race, size and gender, she believes there is always room for improvement. At every fashion show or photo shoot she attends, she confides that she meets beautiful people, and not just in appearance. "Many aspiring models now bring something special and unique to the table - they are not just meant to wear clothes."

She finds all of these changes and positive developments in the industry as a whole very encouraging, but reminds and argues that "we need to continue to hold each other accountable" because there is still a long way to go.

Furthermore, while she loves modeling and fashion in general, she wants to use her talents for something greater. "The world is slowly recognizing that indigenous people are not only beautiful and strong, but that we hold values that are solutions to many of today's problems, like the climate crisis."

She does not forget her own personality and will not make any concessions. If she is to succeed, it is by being herself, with her roots and her personality. "It's really beautiful to be part of a bigger change in the fashion industry, where people from all walks of life are becoming more and more represented. But my rule is this: if you want to work with me, you have to work with everything I am. I will not cut or change the color of my hair and I will not hide my facial tattoos, because they are part of my identity as an indigenous person."

She was initially concerned that her principles would prevent her from getting work, but was pleasantly surprised by the tolerance, understanding and caring that the people she worked with had for her. She considers herself very lucky. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone.

"My people have always felt invisible, so having that visibility now is very important. Despite all that indigenous communities have endured and lost, we are still here, and we are proud of who we are."



Article by Julie Poutrel for Adama Toulon.