Why model Quannah Chasinghorse fights for Indigenous visibility: ‘We’ve always been a stereotype, a mascot’

·5-min read

At just 19 years old, fashion model Quannah Chasinghorse is right where she belongs.

The first Indigenous woman to walk for Chanel (in October’s Spring-Summer 2022 Ready-to-Wear show), the model was a sensation at this year’s Fashion Month after appearing on the runways of Chloé, Savage x Fenty, Gabriela Hearst and Prabal Gurung.

But while her accomplishments in fashion — which include introducing the industry to Native traditions and style — are only getting started, Chasinghorse’s passion for representing her people and for demanding action to combat climate change began much earlier.

As she reveals in a new interview with Elle, her motivations have never been about the fame or glory that comes with being a supermodel, but rather about representing indigenous culture and fighting for action to combat the climate crisis.

The Indigenous model is a warrior for her culture and the land her people have inhabited for thousands of years. (Photography by Nathaniel Goldberg for Elle magazine)
Quannah Chasinghorse is a warrior for her indigenous culture. (Photo: Nathaniel Goldberg for Elle magazine, courtesy of Elle magazine)

“It all started when I was really young,” said Chasinghorse, whose Indigenous ancestry is a mix of Hän Gwich’in, of Alaska and Canada, and the Oglala Lakota Nation, of South Dakota).

A fourth-generation land protector for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in her home state of Alaska, alongside her mother, Jody Potts-Joseph, Chasinghorse's family has fought for the land her people have inhabited for thousands of years.

“I grew my platform through my advocacy work, through being a land and water protector and showing up," she explained. "That’s what got me attention and started my career. Being able to live my dream and continue that important work is all I could ever ask for.”

Her role in the climate change movement, alongside many other young activists, is critical. But as she highlights, her people have battled this crisis for decades, and it’s only now that the world is starting to notice.

“There are always Indigenous people showing up, doing the work, and I don’t think we get enough recognition,” she said of her climate change advocacy. “Our voices are constantly being pushed away because people don’t take us seriously. We’ve always been a stereotype, a mascot. We’ve always been not seen as real humans. Being a part of that change and encouraging other Indigenous youth to step up and use our voices, but also to be proud of who we are, is what motivates me. It keeps me wanting to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Chasinghorse with her mother, Jody Potts-Joseph. (Photography by Nathaniel Goldberg for Elle magazine)
Chasinghorse with her mother, Jody Potts-Joseph. (Photo: Nathaniel Goldberg for Elle magazine, courtesy of Elle magazine)

In an industry that often fetishizes Native imagery, Elle points out, Chasinghorse’s voice and agency to celebrate her culture authentically is being elevated in campaigns and on the runway unlike anytime in history for Indigenous models — with her face tattoo being among her most distinguishable attributes.

The tattoo, she explained, is called a Yidįįłtoo, a traditional marking done by by her community at age 14. Given by her mother, the tattoo ceremony represents a rite of passage she could have received at an even younger age, but instead waited until she was old enough to “defend” it.

"I knew that if people knew I got [the Yidįįłtoo] younger, they wouldn’t have accepted me. Like, ‘A 12-year-old with a tattoo on her face?’” she explained. Of course, it wouldn't have been the first time Chasinghorse made an impression at a young age.

The model recalled a moment in the seventh grade that placed her on a journey toward activism: After infiltrating a board meeting at her school, she convinced the administrators to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

It was a moment she’ll never forget. “I’ve never been that proud of being Native in my life,” she said. “I was so proud to be who I was.”

Quannah Chasinghourse. Photography by Nathaniel Goldberg for Elle magazine.
Supermodel Quannah Chasinghourse. (Photo: Nathaniel Goldberg for Elle magazine)

Still, while the world has come to fall in love with Chasinghorse, she's the first to admit she doesn't always feel so confident.

Recently, the model opened up about her "lonely" Met Gala experience after tweeting about how isolated she felt when attending the fashion event, which was themed "In America: A Lexicon of Fashion."

During an interview with Insider, she explained, "It was such a weird space to be in. I remember standing there and looking at everyone and feeling so alone. Like, really, really lonely," she said. "People are there for themselves and it shows," adding that she felt no one "knew me" or "cared to ask."

To stay grounded throughout the night, Chasinghorse said she kept telling herself, "'Never forget who you are and where you come from.' All my ancestors were with me in that moment. They walked the red carpet with me. That made me feel more powerful."

"I'm not an elitist. My way of walking in this world, in the industry, is so different compared to everyone else because I feel like I'm constantly having to break barriers," she continued. "No way am I celebrating America. If I were to celebrate anything it would be my Indigenous roots, my Indigeneity, who I am. Because of what America did to my people, I am proud to be here today … My ancestors had to go through so much genocide after genocide after genocide."