Photography: Courtesy Tina Chou
Photography: Courtesy Tina Chou

A company that showcases Native art gets a good lesson in cultural sensitivity.

When Mac Bishop tells people what he does for a living, he is usually met with a strange look.

The 24-year-old entrepreneur, who collaborates with Native American artists on fashion designs, isn’t surprised by the raised eyebrows. “It kind of goes to show that, in general, mainstream America doesn’t have too much exposure to Native American culture,” Bishop says.

He hopes to change that.

Bishop started NATIVE(X), a lifestyle brand that includes wool bags, iPad sleeves, and other accessories, with the goal of using fashion as a platform for American Indian artists. By highlighting their art — each product is designed with input from a Native designer — he also hopes to raise cultural awareness.

Although the initial idea started as a college project, the root of Bishop’s inspiration runs much deeper. As the Portland, Oregon, native explains, his relatives have been working with American Indians for the last 150 years: Bishop’s family owns Pendleton Woolen Mills.

Started in 1863 by his great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Kay, Pendleton has become almost synonymous with wool shirts and blankets. The company is also known for its long-standing relationship with Native peoples. During Pendleton’s earliest days, weavers spent time with local Indians to glean ideas about their design preferences and interpret them; the resulting brightly colored geometric-patterned blankets became highly prized among many tribes for trading and ceremonial use.

Bishop was exposed to the family’s “cowboys and Indians” lega­cy at a young age. He attended the Pendleton Round-Up as a boy and remembers admiring his grandfather’s collection of Native art. “It’s a part of how I grew up,” he says of the family business, “and what we talked about at the dinner table.”

For six generations now, the Bishop family has owned and operated Pendleton Woolen Mills. When it came time for Mac Bishop to do his own thing with that historic Pendleton pedigree, he carried on the family tradition — but decidedly in his own way.

Most start-ups begin with a leap of faith. Bishop took his last October, when he quit his well-paying job at a New York City marketing firm to focus full time on his fashion endeavors. (Along with NATIVE(X), Bishop simultaneously runs another fashion label, called Wool & Prince, which he founded with two friends.) Bishop shares an apartment with five roommates in Tribeca, the trendy neighborhood in Lower Manhattan famous for its film festival and shopping — and high rent (it typically ranks among NYC’s priciest zip codes). To defray costs, he called dibs on a 45-square-foot room with no windows for his bedroom. Until a recent move to a shared space in SoHo, the space also served as the headquarters for his e-commerce business. He facetiously calls it the “freedom closet.”

A year after Bishop took the plunge, NATIVE(X) still doesn’t quite pay the bills, but it’s officially no longer just a hobby. Merchandise is all made in the United States: Vegetable-tanned leather comes from Horween Leather Company in Chicago, leather finishing is done by a father-and-son team in New York, fabric is woven by Pendleton Woolen Mills in Oregon and Washington, and cutting and sewing happens at a five-person shop in Portland, Oregon. Strong sales have led to expansion plans for the product lines (soon to include scarves), as well as for the company’s concept, its roster of Native artists, and its programs benefiting the artists, their families, and communities.

Things look good for the future, but the road getting to this point was not without its share of bumps.

Bishop first launched NATIVE(X) in 2009 while he was just a sophomore at Cornell University, where he majored in business. For his first product, a pair of board shorts, he used Pendleton’s Chief Joseph-patterned fabric. Bishop started marketing the shorts, which were priced at $150, around the Web and got some early interest.

WW_NativeX-2Part of Bishop’s intent, he says, was to spark conversation about the storied Nez Perce leader. But he soon discovered he had actually sparked some controversy. On Facebook, Bishop started into a heated conversation with an Ojibwe tribe member named Caleb Dunlap. Dunlap took umbrage at Bishop’s business model — in all caps. “He kind of just started questioning why I was doing this, basically calling me out and saying I was exploiting Native culture for my own good.”

After messaging back and forth, the two agreed to disagree, but the exchange would prove pivotal for Bishop, who started rethinking NATIVE(X)’s underlying mission. “I realized,” he says, “why am I, as a non-Native, trying to tell the Native story?”

The media is rife with stories about cultural appropriation. A couple of famous recent examples: In 2012, retailer Victoria’s Secret issued an apology after one of its lingerie models took to the runway wearing a headdress. And the rock band No Doubt was forced to pull a video for its song “Looking Hot” when strong exception was taken because, as The Guardian described it, “We see [lead singer Gwen Stefani] emoting in a teepee, getting handcuffed to a wall by cowboys and generally making like a blonde Pocahontas in a Roy Rogers-inspired Vogue shoot.”

Writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie took to Twitter to say that the band had turned “500 years of colonialism into a silly dance song and fashion show.” The band quickly pulled the video off YouTube and apologized, stating that its members had not meant to offend, hurt, or trivialize.

Bishop is much more attuned to these examples now, and, following his Facebook conversation, he says, he and Dunlap have become friends — he now considers him an advisor — and he better understands the sensitivities involved. Bishop addressed the issue head-on in an editorial for The Huffington Post, admitting his mistake. “I intended to use fashion as a catalyst to promote cultural awareness,” he wrote, “but overlooked the involvement of the very culture that I was attempting to create awareness around.”

Bishop’s own new cultural awareness has led to significant changes in how he runs his “post-Caleb” company. In his present business model, the process revolves “basically 100 percent” around the Native community. Not only does the company feature artists from the Pacific Northwest, it is now an outlet for Native artists from across the country to reach a larger audience. Current partnerships include Patrick Dean Hubbell (Diné) and Jaque Fragua (Pueblo of Jemez) from New Mexico, Troy Lynn Whitethorne (Diné) from Arizona, Shaun Peterson (Puyallup) and Nathaniel Wilkerson (Gitxsan) from Washington, Joel Isaak (Kenaitze) from Alaska, and Dustin Mater (Chickasaw) from Oklahoma. Some of the proceeds from NATIVE(X) go to help fund art classes on reservations. Twenty percent of profits from the accessories lines goes directly to the Native artists for their collaboration on designs; from sales of their prints, the artists get half. And the NATIVE(X) website now showcases not just art but artists’ stories and interviews. It’s all part of Bishop’s new-and-improved way of raising cultural awareness.

Fragua, a multimedia artist who recently partnered with Bishop on a series of mixed media images that appear in NATIVE(X)’s online art gallery, says he’s impressed with the company’s mission and revamped approach. “I feel like the more education about Native culture, the more understanding and the more sensitivity and sympathy to the issues,” Fragua says. “People will actually see why it’s so deep, why it’s such a sensitive issue.”

From the October 2013 issue.