On a normal weekend, the inside of the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls is a cacophony of referees whistles, sneaker squeaks and raving basketball fans. But this past weekend it transformed to house the annual Great Western Living and Design Show. Instead of high school pep bands, old-timey western music plays over loudspeakers. The room smells like leather softener and wood. At the far end of the arena — past booths of silver and turquoise jewelry, paintings of horses and aspens, and vests made of the softest furs — a woman with a long, black ponytail sells blankets and bed sheets in iconic, geometric Pendleton designs. Then she pulls dresses out of a garment sheet. One after another, her colorful designs draw stares from ambling shoppers.
This is Belinda Bullshoe. She recently showed her dresses at New York Fashion Week, and may be the first Native American designer to do so. I pull up a chair, and she tells me her story:
[Editor's note: We've provided a transcript below, but do yourself a favor and listen to this one.]
Belinda Bullshoe: My name's Belinda Bullshoe, and I’m from the Blackfeet Tribe, Browning Montana.
I've been doing it for about four years now. The one that taught me to sew was my grandmother. She was a known quiltmaker throughout the Blackfeet Tribe. Just by watching her make the quilts, sew wallets, moccasins, keychains, that's where we learned to sew. I always remember, one day she said you better watch me now to sew, because one day I'm not going to be there. From that day on, I watched her put her quilts together.
She never measured, that's one thing I noticed about her, she never measured her dresses. She knew, instant. And I think that's where I'm more unique. I do not draw my dresses. Once I have it in my head, how I want to design it, I design it. I want people to understand that when I make these dresses, I'm not just creating them, they have a meaning to them. And it's kind of based around our traditional ways, our culture.
My last creation on my dress was a buffalo dress. All my dresses are out of Pendleton but this was a unique one because it had a buffalo on it. In our language we call the buffalo "iinnii." as soon as I started to design that dress, I wanted to design it around our culture. The iinnii is why we're here today.
So when I designed a dress, I decided to put the lifeline on there. On the dress I used, like, sparkle iron-ons, beads or something, but I die the design in a lifeline type, and that's our lifeline through innii, buffalo. So when the dress was on the runway, you can see it, it really stood out.
And at the bottom of the dress, there was a red strip in there. when people asked me in New York what does that mean, that represents the heartbeat of the buffalo. If the heartbeat of the buffalo stopped, then I feel like our people, especially our culture, would disappear.
What had happened was, I designed a dress for a lady out of Vermont. This lady contacted me the week of me preparing to go to our sundance. When I asked her, when do you need this dress? And she said this weekend. I said I'm planning on going to our ceremony for two weeks, you're really pushing some time.
In October, I realized I never heard from her. I wasn't even sure if the dress had even fit her. So when I checked my email, I seen what she emailed me back. She told me that the dress fit, she got the dress the day of the gala. Everybody loved it. Everybody asked where did she get it from, just a lot of compliments on it. Then she asked me if I had ever attended any major fashion shows.
I let her know I did one in Edmonton, one in Calgary, so she said by chance, have you ever went to New York? Never! That's like a far-off dream to go to New York. she said you know Belinda, I'm pretty sure you'd be able to attend. I did let some people know in New York, and they're going to email you, and when they email you, you're going to have to send in some designs. And I was like ok, check your emails. And if they did, send them in your designs, they’ll contact you and let you know if you’re accepted or not. I was like, ok.
Lo and behold, they had emailed me the night before. Wait, what! Am I going to New York? My husband was going and I told him, Rod, I'm going to New York! It was right there!
I realized a far-off dream was gonna become a reality. And all I could think about was my grandmother. And I thought, if it wasn't for her to show me her techniques of sewing, this wouldn't even be happening.
The show was supposed to start at six. There’s one thing that hit my mind that morning. The day all my dreams were coming true, was my grandma's birthday. Feb 10.
It took us a while to get everything ready. It was nerving, like everything was going high. Five hours, four hours, like a countdown.
So we get to the show. they had assistants, they really took care of the designers. they had people ironing out the clothes, we get in there and I'm telling my mom, we got to do this dress, a guy comes over. What dress you need done? Oh we’ll do it, we’ll steam them. No, we’re steaming them. We’re there to help you. Oh, ok!
I was just in amazement they even pulled the show off. Just people racing around. How could this possibly happen? It was a sold out show, that was quite the amazement.
When they came and they called my name, they said Belinda Bullshoe, you're up! I tell you, I was nervous. Just by knowing, my dream is going to become a reality here in the next few moments, it was, I just kept thinking about the support. So many support, so many people. and when I looked out in the audience and I saw all those people out there, I just thought, please New York, love my designs. Please fashion world, I know you’re out there: accept me.
As soon as I seen one of my dresses out on the runway, it was quite the moment for me, quite the experience.
After the show was over with, I was so tired, I was so burnt out. We got back to the room, and I sat there and realized, what did I just do? Did this just really actually happen? did I really just do a major show in New York, and not only that, did I open up one? Everything was really just shocking.
But the dress is really nice. It's here you'll be able to see it.
Here's the buffalo one. It's, I always say, my pride. This one's my best one. Here’s the one with the lifeline.
Well, I don't know if anybody cares about the story behind it, but yeah, there goes our culture down the runway. People don't know why I made it, but to me, I thought there's our culture on the runway, our past, our future on the runway.
Nicky Ouellet: Belinda Bullshoe says she never would have made it to New York Fashion Week without donations and support, especially from the Great Falls Tribune, which published a story about her and helped her raise the money she needed to get to New York and participate in the show.
Since she showed her dresses in New York Fashion Week, Bullshoe has been invited back for the fall show, and Paris wants her too. If commissions keep coming in at the current rate, she says she’ll need a new sewing machine.