Like the Diné in the United States, the Sakha in the Russian Federation are known by another name to their fellow citizens.
A Navajo delegation traveled to Russia from March 1 to 7 for a cultural summit in Yakutsk. The indigenous people of the city, which is in Russia’s Sakha Republic, are known to Russians as Yakuts.
“The difference between Yakuts and Sakha is like the difference between Navajo and Diné,” said Gordon Bronitsky, President of Bronitsky and Associates.
Bronitsky and Associates, an international cultural marketing group, worked with the United States Consulate in Vladivostock to arrange the trip.
Bronitsky emphasized the importance of having a delegation composed of both cultural experts and working professionals for an authentic exchange of culture beyond archetypes or stereotypes. He said stereotypes can trap people, if audiences only want to see what they imagine to be authentic.
“Native performers and non-Native audiences are trapped by what everybody knows Native performance is,” he said.
“Where can we see Navajo fashion in a first-class fashion show, not in a high school gym?” he asked.
The summit brought the Yakuts that opportunity and the opportunity for the Navajo travellers to experience the Yakuts culture and society.
First-grade teacher at Ganado Elementary School Leandra Thomas and President of Navajo Technical University Elmer Guy travelled as educators. Navajo designer Virginia Ballenger travelled with garments in her bags to demonstrate Navajo style. Ruth and Edison Bitsui travelled as Navajo cultural experts.
When the cultural summit began on March 4, Ballenger went straight to work preparing models for an international fashion show scheduled during the summit.
“We went to the hotel. We freshened up. I was told, ‘You’ll get picked up here in about an hour and a half. Be ready to go fit your models,’” she recalled.
She was brought to a location with about 30 models lined up, where she chose the models she thought would fit best into the clothing she brought and had the look she wanted. She had only one bag of clothes to display the look of her “Navajo Spirit” clothing line at the show called “Solar Deer.”
“They told me, ‘You can bring six to 10 pieces,’” said Ballenger, who is the owner of Navajo Spirit in Gallup. “So I took seven pieces.”
She said she took a two-piece velvet set of a traditional Navajo blouse and a pleated velvet skirt and “jazzed them up with some studs.”