It’s no secret that Hollywood has a horrible track record of portraying Native Americans in film and television, and stereotypical depictions of the indigenous people of this continent continue to persist even today.
That legacy of disrespect is why for season four, Outlander’s costume designer Terry Dresbach was committed to recreating the clothing of the Cherokee and Mohawk Nations characters as authentically as she could.
“It was daunting. And I knew that we had an obligation to do it right,” she told me over the phone. “Hollywood has had a bad history with this, and I wanted to right that. I wanted to do it properly, and I staked that claim from day one with everybody I worked with. I said, ‘We’re going to do this right, we’re going to do this as accurately as possible.'”
But that mission proved to be more difficult than she initially thought.
“I started doing my research and just wanted to throw up because there’s just so little information,” she admitted.
Dresbach says her team “consulted with everyone we possibly could” and that she spent a year on the research for the Native American costumes this season, which is the most she’d done for anything related to the show. But she was still left with questions.
Over the course of her research she spoke with someone at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, who confirmed that sadly, some details are unknowable.
“She finally just said, ‘You know what? The bottom line is that we just don’t know. What little information that there was, was burned to the ground in the libraries during the Civil War.’ And I just remember this heart-sinking feeling,” Dresbach said.
“There is just so little information because we’re talking about genocide and cultural genocide as well.”
Dresbach sees designing these costumes as putting together a puzzle of historical research, albeit one with the final pieces missing.
“At a certain point you almost have to try and inhabit the people and go okay, what’s the temperature? What’s the climate, why would I do this? Where would I be headed? And to try to guess how to fill in those puzzle pieces,” she explained.
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