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Gwich'in teenage activist becomes international runway model

Quannah Chasinghorse Potts by Grace Wilson
Grace Wilson
Quannah Chasinghorse Potts photo by Grace Wilson

Quannah Chasinghorse Potts has just returned to Fairbanks from France where she modeled Chanel during Paris Fashion Week. She was discovered because of her activism for Native land rights.

A Fairbanks teenager is becoming an international fashion sensation and is being celebrated for her Native heritage.

2021 has been busy for 19-year-old Quannah Chasinghorse Potts.

Last week she was in Paris and before that New York, where the novelty of an Alaska Native on the runway garnered respect from an industry that has overlooked or devalued Native people.

“The theme was very American. Being able to bring my culture because we are true Americans. We are Native. This is Native America; We were on stolen Native land. And recognizing that, being able to bring a part of that and showing the world we deserve to be in these spaces,” she said.

Chasinghorse, who has Gwich’in and Lakota heritage, was interviewed this week, along with her mother, Jody Potts, by producer Diana Campbell for the Fairbanks Native Association.

Quannah Chasinghorse Potts and her mom Jody Potts
Fairbanks Native Association
Quannah Chasinghorse Potts, left and her mother, Jody Potts, right, appear in an online interview for Fairbanks Native Association on October 11, 2021. Both women are Native activists.

Before becoming a fashion model Quannah Chasinghorse was an activist. Two years ago, she went to Washington D.C. with the Gwich’in Steering Committee’s Youth Council to talk to Senators about the Artic National Wildlife refuge. She traveled with her mother, Jody Potts, who was the regional director of Native Movement, to various demonstrations.

“Through my advocacy, I was growing a platform. My speaking engagements, all my protests, all my rallies -- speaking up for our ways of life and all of that was really being noticed on social media,” she said.

In 2020 a casting company was looking for diverse youths from around the country for a Calvin Klein campaign called “One Future” that stressed the importance of voting. Quannah, whose first name is pronounced KWAH-nah, Chasinghorse was recruited, along with her brother, Izzy (Isaiah) Potts, to model for the campaign.

“As soon as that came out, I had agencies reaching out to me, and I later on signed with IMG Models. Within, like, the first week of being signed with them, I got my first shoot of the V Magazine cover, for another voting issue and also the Chanel book,” she said.

The V magazine issue came out in January, and the Chanel book was released this spring high-profile gigs that vaulted the teenager onto the Met Gala, and Europe’s Fashion Week runways.

Modeling Chanel in Paris Quannah Chasinghorse Potts
Alessandro Lucioni
Modeling Chanel in Paris.

“And that was so insane…”

Designers have her wearing their own lines, but often feature her Alaska connection. This spring, she had a spread in Vogue Mexico, including the cover. Her mother went with her on the shoot. Potts describes how dentalium shell earrings made by Melissa Charlie of Alaska made it onto the cover of Vogue.

“All these super high-fashion outfits and the photographers and stylists were just loving her jewelry, her traditional handmade Native jewelry from Alaska. At one point they were even like Jody, we like the earrings, you’re wearing. Can you take those off and let Quannah wear them for the shoot? I'm like, yes, please. Quannah is wearing high fashion AND Native jewelry and representing in that way,” Potts said.

Even though her fashion career has taken off, Chasinghorse is not giving up on her activism. During the interview this week, she wore a hoodie that said “No drilling on the Yukon Flats.”

“Any space I go into, I try to educate as much as I can, on our peoples, on our culture, on our ways of life, on how important it is to defend the sacred and, um, celebrate indigenous peoples. After generations of genocide, we're still here,” she said. “And we're rising.”

With thanks to Diana Campbell, I’m Robyne in Fairbanks.