Indigenous dolls inspire pride in Native identity

·4 min read

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Growing up, Michelle Reed, who is Ojibwe, never had dolls that looked like her.

Instead, her dolls, which were mostly handed down, usually had blonde hair and blue eyes.

"We grew up thinking that blonde hair and blue eyes were beautiful, so that's the doll you want to dress in the prettiest dresses," she said. "Growing up, no one ever wished they were Native. Even I never really understood how beautiful our people were."

Now, at age 47, Reed, who is an artist, works to change that narrative.

"I grew up with a lot of negativity and being told I was never good enough. I'll never be anything. So, it's a life goal of mine to shift that perception. And there are a lot of people who are doing this work, and I feel like we are making a difference," she said.

Reed makes Indigenous porcelain and Barbie dolls by hand and established the Indigenous Girl Doll Collection. She's intentional in her work, as she makes dolls with different skin tones, hairstyles and regalia to accurately represent unique tribal cultures. She paints the doll's faces and dons them in necklaces, belts, dresses and moccasins.

Reed worked with the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina to create an official doll for their people. She consulted with tribal leaders, incorporated traditional styles and taught a group of Lumbee people how to make the dolls in a week-long program.

With support from grant funding, Reed also created a collection of no-face dolls, which are made out of all-natural materials, including leather, horsehair, wool for dresses and bone and glass beads for the breastplate.

Reed is passionate about her work, and she cherishes the moments when children see her dolls for the first time.

"It's just a different type of reaction. (There's) excitement, which you'll see with most kids when they get toys, but you also see their pride of having something so beautiful and, really, so rare," she said. "It's so important for them to have the understanding that they are beautiful and to see a doll that looks like them and see it wearing beautiful clothes that they want to wear at the powwow."

But it's not just children who enjoy Reed's dolls. She said the dolls are meaningful to elders, who may never have had a Native doll growing up.

"They get the dolls and either have them for display or have them for when their grandkids come over. It's really cool," Reed said.

Now, Reed is working on a Barbie collection of 25 Indigenous dolls wearing ribbon skirts.

"The girls who get these dolls will see themselves in what they would wear to school because a lot of young girls are wearing skirts to school, so I'm starting to gear their wardrobe more toward wearing things to represent their everyday culture," she said.

These dolls will be available for purchase on Reed's website on Monday at 2 p.m. Mountain Time. Reed said her dolls usually sell out within minutes.

To follow Michelle Reed's work, you can visit her Facebook page at MReed Designs Purse Co., Instagram page at Mreeddesigns or website at Reed also co-founded the Woodland Sky Native American Dance Company, which travels to schools to showcase Native culture.

This week in the news ...

  • One year ago on Jan. 6, when rioters stormed the Capitol, tribal members in Montana said they were angry but not surprised.

  • Debora Juarez, who is Blackfeet, is elected as first Indigenous president of Seattle City Council

  • A Māori journalist made history in New Zealand by becoming the first person with traditional facial markings to host a primetime news program on national television

  • Children's book by MSU Billings graduate added to Indian Education for All curriculum

  • Indigenous language workshop open to the public

  • If you watched "Reservation Dogs," you'll appreciate these earrings

Nora Mabie

Indigenous Communities Reporter,

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This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Michelle Reed's Indigenous dolls inspire pride in Native identity

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