As lights flashed and music filled the Oregon Convention Center on July 2, Native models strutted down a runway with confidence and attitude. Thousands of youth sat in the audience, dressed in traditional clothes from their nations and their finest attire, and cheered for their peers onstage.

A model poses in a geometric print skirt designed by Red Berry Woman during the pre-gala fashion show during the 2024 Unity Conference in Portland, Oregon on July 2. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Cronogomet / ICT)

Youth from Native nations all across Turtle Island gathered in Portland, Oregon the first week of July for this year’s UNITY conference. United National Indian Tribal Youth, is one of the largest Native youth leadership gatherings across the country meant to inspire and empower the next generations of Native leaders. This year, over 2,800 youth attended the gathering, making it the biggest one to date.

Over a dozen young Native models in the fashion show showcased different designs from award winning Native Fashion designer, Red Berry Woman. Norma Baker-Flying Horse, an enrolled member of the Hidatsa tribe and a member of the Dakota Sioux and Assiniboine tribes as well as an adopted member of the Crow Nation, creates pieces that honor her Native culture.

A model walks down the runway at the pre-gala fashion show during the 2024 UNITY Conference on July 2. He is wearing a ribbon shirt designed by one of the other Native youth attending this year's conference. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Cronogomet / ICT)

“These designers, they tell stories about things through their designs,” said 20-year-old Feather Rakestraw, Yurok and Oglala Lakota.

She modeled an orange skirt during the fashion show by Red Berry Woman. Prior to the pre-gala fashion show at the 2024 UNITY conference, Rakestraw wore a floral ribbon skirt with ribbons the color of the sunset and beaded earrings, each of which she made herself. Rakestraw learned to sew and bead from her mother, and said she decided to model in the fashion show because she knew it would make her mom proud.

Feather Rakestraw, Yurok and Oglala Lakota, wore a ribbon skirt she sewed and earrings she beaded on July 2, 2024 during the UNITY Conference. The 20-year-old modeled for Red Berry Woman during the pre-gala fashion show that evening. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Cronogomet / ICT)

The gala at the Oregon Convention Center helped end the UNITY conference with a bang, following workshops, ceremony, keynote speakers, leadership training and Nike N7 day spent at the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

“What brought me to UNITY was just knowing that it would give us more opportunities to take back to our reservation,” said Shavaughn Titla, 22, Miss White Mountain Apache Queen title holder.

She traveled to UNITY with other youth from the White Mountain Apache Youth Council.

“I am so thankful for that,” Titla continued.

White Mountain Apache citizens Charity Johnson, 23, and Shavaughn Titla, 22, attended the 2024 UNITY Conference in Portland, Oregon with other youth from the White Mountain Apache Tribal Youth Council. (Photos by Nika Bartoo-Smith Cronogomet / ICT)

On July 2, the fourth day of the conference, youth were encouraged to wear their traditional skirts and shirts. Colorful ribbons, hand-stitched moccasins and beaded jewelry filled the Oregon Convention Center with color as thousands of youth represented their Native nations with pride.

“We can make our own clothes, we know how to sew,” said Michaiah Pease, 22, Crow Nation and Aaniiih, while watching the fashion show. “But when it comes to the mainstream, there's not a lot of options for us. But it's becoming a lot more inclusive.”

Michaiah Pease, 22, Crow Nation and Aaniiih, traveled to Portland, Oregon from Montana for the 2024 UNITY Conference with other youth from the Crow Tribal Youth Council. Pease currently serves as Miss Crow Nation. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Cronogomet / ICT)

Pease, the Miss Crow Nation Crown holder, wore a Choke Cherry Creek dress by Indigenous designer Angela Howe-Parrish.

“It makes me feel empowered, that if they can do it, then I can do something as well with my life,” Pease said about Native fashion designers. “And that gives me hope that there's going to be more options for me to be able to express myself as an Indigenous woman.”

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...