Inspired by a childhood on Indian Island and the social work she does today, Donna Decontie Brown uses Wabanaki traditions to create contemporary fashion.
“My hands are never idle,” says Donna Decontie Brown of Bangor, cutting and tying fringe on a teal-and-purple ribbon skirt, a modern twist on traditional Wabanaki regalia. “I’m always doing, working, creating.”
Besides being a maker of unique fashion inspired by indigenous peoples, Decontie Brown is a full-time outreach coordinator with the Wabanaki Women’s Coalition, which advocates for women experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault. Plus, consulting with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of Justice, she leads other tribes as they work toward establishing culturally specific drug courts, as the Penobscots have. The role has earned her respect in and out of the state.
“She not only has worked with Wellness Courts here in Maine but also across the country with the Hopi in Arizona and the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe in Wisconsin,” says Hon. Eric M. Mehnert, chief judge for the Penobscot Nation Tribal Court.
“Everything she does is to empower,” says Jason Brown, her husband and creative partner. “She deals with heavy and difficult subjects. But tapping into creativity and our culture keeps her grounded.”
His metalwork and stonework was the foundation of J. Brown Designs, which in 2015 was renamed Decontie & Brown to reflect Donna’s increasing involvement. Together they were expanding into custom-made high-end fashion, each ensemble incorporating Wabanaki influences and modern sensibilities. A regal but prickly-looking dress called “Armored Beauty” was inspired by Decontie Brown’s work with sexual assault survivors.
“Jason and I attached components to the gown in areas where men typically touch women without permission in a club or a setting like that,” she says. “The message is, just because I’m beautiful doesn’t mean that you have permission to touch.”
The “components” look fierce, like porcupine quills (an element of traditional Native apparel) but are in fact zip ties.
For Decontie Brown, the threads of social justice, feminism, traditional art and contemporary creativity are woven together as if of one purpose, one spirit. The origin of Decontie & Brown, fashion designers, as well as the couple’s love story, goes back nearly four decades to two children learning the traditional art of beadwork on side-by-side looms.
She had spent her early childhood among her father’s people, the Algonquin First Nation of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg near Maniwaki, Quebec. Her mother, both Italian and Penobscot, was from Maine’s Indian Island, near Old Town. There’s a 1979 photo of Decontie Brown celebrating her fifth birthday—the first time she visited the reservation—beside her future husband, both wearing paper party hats.
“I remember when she moved back in first grade and what she looked like,” he says, adding that she wore a purple-and-turquoise striped polo shirt. “It’s a mental picture that stuck with me.”
Growing up on Indian Island in the 1980s, they were taught to weave baskets, forage for fiddleheads, paddle canoes, make snowshoes and dance and sing to Native music.
“The Universe, the Creator guided us to be together at such a young age,” she says. “We were childhood sweethearts. He was my first boyfriend, and I was his first girlfriend. Our friends even had a mock wedding for us back in the sixth grade.”
Her first job was beading for one of the tribe’s elders, making necklaces, porcupine quill chokers and earrings. Meanwhile, Jason discovered sudden, pop culture-inspired, demand for traditional arts: single strands of seed beads made trendy by Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison in 1991’s The Doors and chunky beaded chokers made trendy by Janet Jackson not long after. This sort of contemporary improvisation on traditional arts—with more maturity and originality—would become a mainstay of the Decontie & Brown style. But that was years off.
She studied psychology at the University of Ottawa, while he attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And then, the Christmas they were 27, they again crossed paths on Indian Island. A long-distance romance re-kindled and, within months, they knew. They have been married 15 years.
“Our talents, our skills, our energy—we just feed off each other so well,” she says. “I could not achieve creatively, artistically without him, and he says the same about me. We truly complement each other.”
Decontie & Brown wearable art is modeled after fishing spears and nets, flora and fauna, jellyfish and “star people” (the Wabanaki term for aliens). Their inspiration is the Maine woodlands and coast where the Wabanaki have lived for thousands of years—the vines and fiddleheads, blue jays and cardinals—and items of cultural significance—wampum, gingham and handwoven baskets. And nothing is rushed: On a wedding gown patterned on trillium petals, she sewed 150,000 seed beads in trillium swirls.
“While their cutting-edge fashion might not scream ‘Native American,’ it is certainly based in Wabanaki culture and is inspired by traditional artwork, like the designs on beadwork and baskets—which are mostly abstractions of forms found in nature,” said Tilly Laskey, curator of Holding Up the Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History & Art, an exhibition at Maine Historical Society up through Feb. 1, 2020. “They confront the stereotypes many people have about Native artwork and the expectation that Wabanaki artwork automatically means basketry.” Decontie & Brown creations have also been purchased by the Maine State Museum in Augusta, the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, and the Historic New England Museum in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
“When we started to make that transition to the modern, it was all about, ‘What’s marketable? How could we bring a more modern style to the pieces?’,” Decontie Brown says. Now they’ve developed a following from the Native American markets they travel to, as far flung as Santa Fe and Juneau, and knowing they have a market frees them up creatively. “If it’s something totally elaborate, we may not have an immediate buyer. But we know there’s an owner for it; it just hasn’t found its home yet.”
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer from Scarborough who was dazzled by a Decontie & Brown fashion show at a Maine Historical Society fundraiser.
This story has been updated on September 3, 2019 to correct the name of the community where Donna Decontie Brown spent her early childhood. It is the Algonquin First Nation of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg rather than the Algonquin of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation of Kitigan Zibi.