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In 1863, the U.S. government took the Wallowa Valley from the Nimíipuu, two years after white settlers discovered gold there. Thousands of miners and settlers invaded after the government shrunk the reservation to one tenth of its former size. For Mikailah Thompson, returning to the jagged mountains and deep blue waters of the Wallowa Valley for the backdrop of her latest international brand deal, meant returning to her Nimíipuu roots.

This spring, Manitobah, a Canada-based clothing brand, selected Mikailah Thompson as its spring 2024 seasonal artist. Thompson is an Afro-Indigenous artist and entrepreneur who shares her time between Lapwai, Idaho on the Nez Perce Reservation and Washington D.C. Through her unique use of geometric shapes, Thompson’s designs tell stories that blend her Nimíipuu and African heritage.

“Rooted in my culture, I intricately bead subtle elements of Nimíipuu and African designs into the pieces I create. Each bead, each stitch, serves as a profound homage to the legacy of my ancestors—honoring their stories, traditions, and resilience,” Thompson said in the official statement announcing the collaboration.

Manitobah echoed Thompson’s excitement and is delighted to collaborate with artists like her to help bring collections like “Rooted” to life, according to Carolyn MacNaughton, CEO of Manitobah.

“Through collaborations like these, we provide a platform for authentic Indigenous art that encourages pride, shapes lives, and helps keep traditions alive. Thompson's contribution embodies this ethos, and we're excited to showcase her work and celebrate the rich heritage it represents,” MacNaughton said. “Together, we walk towards a future where Indigenous voices are celebrated and empowered.”

Chloe Thompson, Nimíipuu and Black, raises the Canyon Scarf as she dances in her jingle dress. Chloe studies broadcast production and film at Washington State University and is a videographer for Indigenous Creatives. She is also Mikailah Thompson's younger sister. (Photo by Pox Young, courtesy of Indigenous Creatives)

Moving Home

As a little girl, Thompson was raised on the east coast, living in places like Connecticut, Delaware and New York. At age ten, she moved nearly 2,500 miles back West to her mother’s reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, transitioning from a bustling industrial urban cityscape to the quiet, camas-filled hills and flowing rivers and streams of her homelands.
“I was able to get to be a part of a community for the first time,” Thompson said. “It was a really good feeling just to be around my family.”

Moving back to the reservation provided opportunities she didn’t have access to living across the country, according to Thompson. Now that she was home, she was excited to learn more about her culture, where she came from, what her people did, and who she was.

Beading was one of those traditions.

“My grandmother taught me how to bead once I moved home,” Thompson said. “She had a lot of beads, and I said, ‘You know, these look very interesting, and I'm curious,’ and she just jumped in and taught me how to bead.”

Thompson vividly remembers the feeling of opening the supply closet at the end of the hallway in the home of her maternal grandmother, Chloe Halfmoon. Behind the unusually skinny wooden door, scents of smoked hide and dusty antique beads filled her lungs as she looked up at the stacks of repurposed cookie cans and cigarette boxes turned beading containers, or stashes for buckskin scraps and unused thread.

Today, the 30-year-old is the owner and founder of Beadwork By Mikailah and Indigenous Creatives, which was in charge of visuals for her Manitobah collection.

In addition, she is also the co-host of Quantum Theory Podcast, where she shares personal experiences of being biracial, and engages in conversations around blood quantum and the one drop rule.

Thompson’s artwork has been affiliated with other Indigenous brands and organizations such as Eighth Generation, Potlatch Fund, ThunderVoice Hat Co. and at the largest juried Native American art show in the world: the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ annual Indian Market.

‘Rooted in Tradition’

Manitobah is helping to honor and preserve traditional designs by blending functionality with wearable art that makes a difference with each step. In 1997, Manitobah was founded in Winnipeg, Canada by Sean McCormick, Métis, whose mission was to build an impactful global brand that collaborates with and uplifts Indigenous artists across North America.

The global “Rooted” campaign was created to explore the roots that bind us to the past, present and future.

“I wanted to highlight all of where we're from,” Thompson said. “While we were going through different names and what we wanted to name the shoes, and the story we wanted to tell with those, I kind of brought it back to the original homeland.”

In 1861, word got out that gold was discovered on the Nez Perce reservation. In pursuit of striking it rich, thousands of miners and settlers flocked to the region. Two years later, the U.S. government negotiated a new treaty with the Nez Perce, which ultimately shrunk their reservation boundary one-tenth of its land size in 1855. The Wallowa Valley had been stolen.

“My people are from Idaho, Washington and Oregon,” Thompson said. “Wallowa was what we had to leave from, that's what we were forced to move from.”

Designs like the Wallowa Moccasin, the Festival Hat and the Butterfly Flat, featuring Thompson’s signature geometric embroidery and beadwork designs, pay homage to the legacy of her ancestors and Nimíipuu homelands.

The Wallowa Moccasin – named after the Wallowa Valley on Mikailah Thompson's Nimíipuu homeland – features her geometric embroidery. Thompson wanted the Wallowa Moccasin to embody modern construction while staying true to tradition and artistry. (Photo by Pox Young courtesy of Indigenous Creatives)

‘It all comes down to representation'

Thompson didn’t think opening that unusually skinny closet full of her grandmother’s supplies twenty years ago would have had such an impact on her life. But she hopes that others can see that they too can build a career by creating artwork and keeping traditions like beading alive.

“I always knew I was going to be something, whether the boss of this, or doing this, but I never expected to be doing my own thing on my own terms, and that's something I'm very proud of,” Thompson said.

With her creative agency, Indigenous Creatives, Thompson and her team were in charge of sharing the vision of the Manitobah collection and collaboration with the world.

“They really just gave us full creative control on what we wanted to do. Seriously, not only as the artist, but as the creative director of the business as well as sharing who we are as people, who we are as a tribe, highlighting the importance of who I am and what I identify as,” Thompson said. “Which is obviously a Black, Native creative.”

In staying true to who she is at her roots, Thompson intentionally worked with all Afro-Indigenous models and creatives like her younger sister Chloe Thompson, and fellow beadwork artist Kellen Trenal for the collection to help show the diversity within Indian Country, while simultaneously providing authentic Afro-Indigenous representation.

“My art is not merely a reflection; it's a testament to my roots and aspirations, speaking volumes where words fall short,” Thompson said. “I was excited to collaborate with Manitobah and to have the opportunity to showcase my art alongside my community.”

“It all comes down to representation,” Thompson added. “If I'm the artist, then I’m showing all of me in this.”

Lead photo: Mikailah Thompson, Nimíipuu and Black, is the owner of Beadwork by Mikailah and Indigenous Creatives, as well as co-host of Quantum Theory Podcast. (Photo courtesy of Indigenous Creatives)

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....