Native Americana: How Two Physicians Are Honoring Their Heritage Through Fashion

Sara Watson

Disclosures

November 08, 2021

In politics and media, Native American representation is apparent. Earlier this year, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made history as the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. This summer, Reservation Dogs, featuring all Indigenous writers and directors, hit Hulu (and scored a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes). In two other spheres — healthcare and fashion — spouses Erik Brodt and Amanda Bruegl are tackling representation head-on.

"We still exist, and we've been here after 1890," says Brodt, "because that's where most people think we ended."

For Brodt and Bruegl's premium selvedge denim line, Ginew, and their work at the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence, it's just the beginning. 

Figure 1. Amanda Bruegl, left, and Erik Brodt, right, were inspired to found Ginew after crafting traditional belts for their wedding party.

Already physicians, faculty members, and educational researchers, in 2010 Brodt and Bruegl became fashion designers, with an aesthetic rooted in their shared Native American identity. "Ginew," which means brown or golden eagle and references part of Brodt's Ojibwe name, began when Erik and Amanda, who have Ojibwe, Oneida, and Mohican heritage, fashioned belts for their wedding party, made from a buffalo their family hunted. Clothing and accessories followed, and today Ginew offers denim jackets, jeans, bandanas, and more.

The aesthetic is "Native Americana," featuring sacred colors and symbols and utilitarian items made from high-quality materials all produced in safe, fair-wage factories. The products are available online and at highly curated global stockists spanning Sweden, Korea, and Australia. 

The collection is beautiful and clearly coveted: The brand's signature Rider jacket, featuring a custom Pendleton fabric lining, is consistently sold out. (The jacket is an ode to Bruegl's grandfather, a welder who worked for Harley Davidson during the 1950s and, to keep his family on the reservation, rode his motorcycle several hours each way to Milwaukee for work.) But it begs the question: How do Brodt, a family physician, and Bruegl, an obstetrician-gynecologist, find the time?

Figure 2. Model Shaian Price wears the Facing East Flyer's Jacket, a collaboration with knitwear company Dehen 1920, which features a wool blanket design created by artist Native artist Dyani White Hawk.

Cultivating Native Excellence

"I would couch it as right brain, left brain," explains Brodt, noting that he and Bruegl's clinical practice, research work, and administrative and initiative development at the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence (NNACoE) at Oregon Health & Science University is "very much on one side of our brains," he says. "So, believe it or not, [designing] helps us. In times where we're expanding programs or research, or when our clinical practice gets intense, we need to do more creative things as opposed to less."

Brodt's and Bruegl's "day job" at the NNACoE largely focuses on training more American Indian and Alaska Native physicians. NNACoE is the only center of its kind, funded by the Health Resources & Services Administration, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. One could argue that Ginew is the only company of its kind, drawing striking similarities between two otherwise different industries.

Figure 3. In addition to modeling, Katie Harris-Murphy (left) works at NNACoE alongside Brodt and Bruegl. Anna Harris (center) wears the Thunderbird Jacket, and Mary Harris (right) is a student at OHSU.

"A lot of what Amanda and I do professionally parallels Ginew in that, in medicine, there are so few people who are American Indians or Alaska Natives (AIANs)," Brodt says. "Billions of dollars have been invested into diversifying the US health force, but [AIAN] representation has actually gone down. Where other groups have seen increases, our representation has dropped."

According to a 2018 American Medical Association Council on Medical Education report, about 0.4% of the physician workforce was made up of AIANs. Brodt says that number has decreased by nearly 50% and is now actually closer to 0.2%.

In just 5 years at NNACoE, where Brodt serves as director and Bruegl is associate director, the center now has the highest concentration of first-year AIAN students at a medical school — a system-changing 10%. "We look out at the class and it's fundamentally, institutionally different," Brodt says. "It's not, 'We're going to let you into medical school and include you so you can work on your reservation.' It's, 'You're the future health leaders of tomorrow, and we will amplify and nourish and foster your unique skills and talents so you can share your genius with the world.'' Brodt sums it up succinctly: "It's not cute, it's excellence."

And, says Brodt, it's the exact same thing at Ginew. "We've been doing this for 11 years, and we've yet to meet another Native American owner in the denim or premium men's apparel space."

A Truly Authentic Brand

Of course, cultural appropriation — taking elements of a group's identity or culture without acknowledgement — is another story. Recently, Minnesota-based brand Minnetonka formally apologized for appropriating Native American footwear. Mega-retailer Ralph Lauren frequently plagiarizes Native American motifs, says Brodt.

Figure 4. Left to right: Aaron Tellez wears the classic Selvedge Denim Rider, Haatepah Clearbear is outfitted in iterations of the Crew Sweatshirt and Wax Vest, while Nyamull Clearbear dons the Thunderbird Jacket.

"So many people are trying to appropriate the design, stories, culture, and fashion," Brodt says. "But at Ginew, we're not a novelty. This is an American Indian brand. You're not buying made-up or stolen designs: You're buying the real deal made to the highest standards and quality so that native entrepreneurs are leading the way. We're trying to assert ourselves so that the American Indian is associated with excellence."

Challenges — and Silver Linings

The surprising connections between premium denim and medicine also extend to COVID-19, though manufacturing delays are far less dire than the disease's impact on AIAN people. In his co-written article, "American Indians and Alaska Natives in the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Grave Burden We Stand to Bear," published in Health Equity, Brodt explains that Native people are disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to "coexisting health conditions, socioeconomic factors, and barriers to care." According to Brodt's article, Native people have the highest hospitalization rate for COVID-19 of any racial or ethnic group and, so far, have experienced 3.5 times the incidence of the disease as non-Hispanic Whites. "COVID has forever marked our family [Native American people] in deep and difficult ways," Brodt says.

As for Ginew, like so many others in so many fields, Brodt and Bruegl have found a way (or have been forced) to pivot. "We've had to not make things; we've had to sit and wait. We can't live up to our projections — but neither can Nike," says Brodt. "Imagine what's happening for a company that's not the largest in the world."

Not that Ginew is trying to emulate Nike. Far from it. Almost everything is produced on the West Coast, and Brodt personally visits factories to ensure that wages are fair and conditions are hospitable: Where are the bathrooms? How many are there? Where are the lights, the stairs? Where do employees get to park? They're sticking close to home in other ways, too.

"There are fancy premium denims in Japan, but what about working with mills in our own time zone?" Brodt asks. Same goes for indigo: Rather than looking farther afield to India or other countries, Ginew uses indigo grown in California for its jeans fabric. "Instead of trying to maximize profit, we're trying to maximize the impact. We want to support an industry that's here, whether they're Native American or not."

Ultimately, conscious consumers have offered Ginew grace amid supply-chain delays.

"[COVID] has made us double down on our principles, and as we've grown our direct-to-consumer presence, people are willing to wait for what we put out," Brodt says, "because they realize it's special."

Medscape and WebMD do not endorse any of the products mentioned in this article, nor do they receive financial compensation from the companies that manufacture them. Links are for informational purposes only and are not to be considered promotional. Prices are subject to change.

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