Quannah Chasinghorse on Chasing Dreams and Caribou

Quannah Chasinghorse on Chasing Dreams and Caribou

Quannah Chasinghorse may just be America's next top model, but she's more than that—she's an Indigenous leader. Her hat is from Helen Anthony, scarf from B.Yellowtail (Northern Cheyenne Nation), dress from Warren Steven Scott (Nlaka'pamux Nation), and pant set from RVN.

 

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

PHOTOGRAPHS BY EVAN BENALLY ATWOOD

STYLIng by Eric Ellison

Activist-turned-model Quannah Chasinghorse shares with The Frontline her deep connection to the land and how she is using her modeling career as a way to bolster Indigenous rights.

Quannah Chasinghorse is racing against the sunset when we arrive at Vanalden Cave. It’s a tagged-up sandstone formation tucked away in the brush near northwest Los Angeles. The trail to reach the cave is steep, but Chasinghorse doesn’t complain as she navigates the path in a pair of black UGG slippers. She doesn’t even break a sweat; her make-up is fully intact for the photos we are there to shoot while the sun is still around. In fact, Chasinghorse giggles most of the way up to the cave—which makes total sense once you realize nature is where the 19-year-old model feels most at home. 

 

Before her modeling career, Chasinghorse lived in Alaska. There, she learned to hunt and fish. This wasn’t sport for Chasinghorse; it was sustenance. Chasinghorse would often spend days or weeks camping. “We were out there forever until we’d come back with something,” she told me the next day, not from an urban hiking trail but from her bedroom, the only room in her new apartment she’s gotten around to furnishing.

 

That connection to the land is sacred for Chasinghorse. She’s Hän Gwich’in and from the Sičangu and Oglala Lakota Tribes, so hunting is a cultural practice. It’s a skill passed down from generation to generation. Her grandma is a hunter, and so is her mom. She wears her heritage proudly through several face tattoos her mom hand-poked. This practice is a rite of passage for Gwich’in girls—a practice Chasinghorse helped revive in her community. Her ties to her land and people pushed her to speak out long before she was a model.

Chasinghorse sits in her room outside L.A. It’s the only room she’s gotten around to decorating so far, covering it in Indigenous art, including photographs from Standing Rock. She’s wearing Diné earrings made out of abalone shells.

Though she mostly travels these days for shoots, she has also traveled to Capitol Hill to demand climate action. In 2019, she lobbied Congress to pass a bill that would prevent oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Though the House passed the bill, the Senate never did. The refuge holds special significance to the Gwich’in. They refer to the refuge as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or the sacred place where life begins, due to the porcupine caribou that go there to calve and on which the Gwich’in rely for food.

 

“This relationship to the land is all I’ve ever known since I was a little kid,” Chasinghorse said as she tried to pinpoint the first time she ever went hunting. It’s a memory forgotten to her; she must’ve been a baby, she said.

 

In 2020, Chasinghorse organized with the Native Vote campaign. That year, Native voters helped swing the election to President Joe Biden’s advantage. That was a win, but Chasinghorse is still working to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In January on Donald Trump’s last day in office, the federal government sold oil and gas leases on the refuge’s coastal plain, but there’s a chance legislators can reverse it if the Senate passes Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which would repeal the program and cancel existing leases.

 

The porcupine caribou are relatives for Chasinghorse. She misses the gifts they offer: meat for jerky, hide for clothes, and bones for jewelry. Her ascension into modeling has required a dramatic shift in her everyday life: “I’m not used to so much concrete. I’m used to hearing the rivers, not cars,” she said. But Chasinghorse is committed to making time for what she cares about most: the earth. After all, representing her people and the planet remains central to why she became a model in the first place.


“In those modeling spaces, I’m educating. I’m sharing. I’m doing my job as a storyteller, as an advocate,” Chasinghorse said. “Opening up those conversations in those spaces is a big part of why I do what I do.”

The corded top is from Marina Leight Atelier, jacket is Helen Anthony, shoes are o2Monde, dress is Warren Steven Scott, and earrings are B.Yellowtail.

Chasinghorse moved around a lot as a kid. She was born in Arizona but mostly grew up in Alaska, where she moved when she was 6. However, her modeling dreams sprouted in the time in between—back when she and her family lived in eastern Mongolia for about two years. Her mother didn’t speak Mongolian, so she often left the TV playing a 24/7 fashion network that aired runway shows from all over the world on an endless loop. Three-year-old Chasinghorse was in paradise.

 

“The runway music, the models walking,” she said, “I don’t know what it was, but I would sit there staring at it in front of the TV for hours, and I became obsessed with fashion. Ever since, everywhere I went, I was posing.” 

 

Chasinghorse isn’t joking. She pulls out the evidence on her iPhone. There’s an array of photos on her mom’s Facebook page showing a much-younger Chasinghorse striking a pose across European cities her family visited before they moved to Alaska. There’s a photo where she’s wearing a bright pink skirt and blue Crocs, even giving a little foot pop and looking off into the distance.

Meet baby Chasinghorse. She’s striking a pose during a European backpacking trip her mother organized before they moved to Alaska. Her brother, Isaiah Potts, is playing in the water behind Chasinghorse. (Photograph by Jody Potts-Joseph)

The rising model is standing next to her older brother, Isaiah Potts, in most of those photos. She’s his spitting image—“She’s like my little twin,” said Potts, 21. Their father wasn’t in their lives growing up, but that made them even more tight knit, Potts explained. As the only girl, she was especially close to her mom who would often take them to school by sled. She was the best at making fires, so Chasinghorse was responsible for gathering wood and setting up the wood stove every morning when she lived in Kenny Lake, Alaska, a tiny rural village where she lived until she and her family moved to Fairbanks when she was 13.

 

Despite the hardships that came along, Chasinghorse remained goofy, funny, and bubbly. She did well in school. Her auntie Princess Johnson, who is also Gwich’in, remembers how observant Chasinghorse was even as a child. She was always thoughtful—and always listening. It’s no wonder speaking out came so easily to her; she grew up seeing other women in her life do it, too.

 

In the seventh grade, for example, she fought to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in her school district in Fairbanks, Alaska. An auntie pulled her out of school so that Chasinghorse could testify at the school board meeting where officials would be voting on the change. She explained to them the heartbreak of learning about Christopher Columbus at school only to come home and hear of his violence against her people from her mom. She spoke of the tears she and her brothers shed as they asked their mother, “Why would they do that to us?” 

 

After an elder joined her in the meeting with his own pointed words, the district moved to replace the holiday. At school the next day—in what Chasinghorse described as “the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life”—officials thanked her on the intercom and announced the school would be celebrating Indigenous People’s Day. That day, the few Native kids at her school showed up with their moccasins on.

“I didn’t think I was pretty. I didn’t think the world thought I was pretty.”

QUANNAH CHASINGHORSE
“I’ve always wanted to be a princess,” Chasinghorse said when she first laid eyes on this gown. The dress is from RVNG Couture, and the jewelry is from Ataumbi Metals (Kiowa Tribe).

You can imagine how hard it was to be one of the few Native kids at her school. “I didn’t think I was pretty,” she said. “I didn’t think the world thought I was pretty.” Her childhood involved kids yanking her long hair or making fun of her nose. She learned to develop a voice and successful platform to continue speaking out for her people in the face of all this adversity. In fact, her advocacy is what catapulted her into stardom. 

 

I remember the day I saw that shift myself. About a year ago, after I finally started riding the New York City subway again during the pandemic, I saw an ad for Calvin Klein as I was leaving the station. I recognized the model but not from any runway shows—she was an activist I had been following. Chasinghorse’s face stared back at me, and that’s when I first realized how special she was.

The hat from Libanati might’ve not been right for the L.A. sun, but it paid homage to Chasinghorse’s Alaskan upbringing. The shirt is also Libanati, skirt and earrings are B.Yellowtail, and the necklaces are Ataumbi Metals.

Calvin Klein had invited Chasinghorse as part of its one future campaign, a project meant to capture the varying vibrancy of youth across the U.S. It centered their voices, faces, hometowns, and experiences. For Chasinghorse, the campaign was a chance to speak out about the climate crisis and her people’s needs ahead of the 2020 elections. “I was already doing get-out-the-vote work,” she said, “so it aligned exactly with what I was doing at the time.” She didn’t expect it would spark an explosion of interest in her from modeling agencies—the same agencies whose websites she’d scroll through, dreaming of one day joining their roster. 

 

Her dream was finally coming true. Chasinghorse almost couldn’t believe it. 

 

“I didn’t think this industry would accept me,” she said. “It was so surreal to me.”

Chasinghorse had to hike to make these photographs happen—she also had to balance herself atop a cave in stilettos. The shoes are from o2Monde, dress is Warren Steven Scott, scarf is B.Yellowtail, hat is Helen Anthony, and the pant set is RVN.

By November 2020, she was signed to IMG Models, which also manages supermodels Ashley Graham and Bella Hadid. Barely a month later, she had secured her first modeling job shooting The Chanel Book for V Magazine. Since then, she’s starred in the Savage X Fenty Show for Rihanna’s lingerie line (catch her at the 5:04 mark) and walked Gucci’s “Love Parade” fashion show alongside actors Jared Leto and Jodie Turner-Smith. Earlier this year, she walked the Met Gala red carpet.

 

And Chasinghorse has plenty more coming out soon that she can’t yet speak publicly about, but she’s all smiles when she shares. She stays humble when she talks about her accomplishments—but she’s visibly proud, too. Her face lights up, revealing a smile you’ll rarely see when she stands before the camera. Her signature face is a serious one, but her beauty shines brightest when her lips are peeled back, teeth exposed, and cheeks high in a smile that you can’t help but smile back at.

This is Chasinghorse at her most beautiful: straight cheesing.

None of this means her transition into modeling has been easy. This is the longest she’s been away from home: “I miss the land. I miss my family. I miss my dogs. I miss salmon, and I miss moose meat. I miss caribou meat. I miss traditional food. I miss my aunties. I miss my nieces and nephews.” She’s still figuring out how to cope with all this longing. And she doesn’t want to lose sight of what matters most: saving the planet.

 

That becomes pretty complicated when you consider how harmful the fashion industry is to the environment. In 2018, the industry emitted 2.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases or 4 percent of the world’s total emissions. To put that into perspective, that’s more than what France, Germany, and the U.K. emit in a year—combined. Most of this comes from producing our clothes and shoes, but a good chunk results from wearing these products because we have to wash and dry our clothes, too. 

 

None of this even factors in the waste component of the fashion industry. It’s not only contributing to the climate crisis; it’s polluting rivers and communities. In Bangladesh—a garment factory hub—many rivers run black due to the chemicals, dyes, metals, and salts clothing manufacturers dump into them. This isn’t just harmful to the wildlife and plants; it’s dangerous for the people who rely on these ecosystems, too. 

“Being someone who can inspire that change in those spaces is how I like to move when it comes to environmentalism in the industry.”

QUANNAH CHASINGHORSE

Unfortunately, clothing is only one piece of the problem. Chasinghorse’s world is one of travel, models, runway shows—and even more waste and emissions. Fashion shows are particularly wasteful when you consider the plastic and plywood that go into set designs or the food that’s leftover and often thrown into the trash. All of this is out of the young model’s control, of course, but it’s a reality with which she must now grapple. She tries to hold onto hope by embracing the ways the industry is trying to improve—through eliminating plastic waste and adding more sustainable materials.

 

“I want to be a part of that growth, and I also want to be an inspiration for them,” Chasinghorse said. “Being someone who can inspire that change in those spaces is how I like to move when it comes to environmentalism in the industry.

 

She lets her values guide her work, but it’s a tricky balance in a world where greenwashing runs rampant. Her career is only getting started, so she’s grateful for every opportunity that comes her way. Still, she’s learning to identify authentic designers she wants to work with—ones that’ll uplift her work and the climate movement overall. She doesn’t want to disappoint her supporters, but she can’t obsess over what people will think, either. There’s nothing healthy about that. After all, the world will always hold her under a microscope now that she’s reached celebrity status (even if she is only 19 years old).

 

“I just try to stay positive,” she said, looking somewhat tortured by the contradictory nature of her two passions. “It can be a little much, but I am thankful. I love my job.”

 

And who can blame her? Chasinghorse’s job is cool as hell. She gets paid to play dress up and looks stunning doing it. She’s gotten to meet Billie Eilish and Rihanna. Certain celebrities (and their flirty sons) have slid into her DMs. She’s even exploring acting possibilities. 

 

Chasinghorse is only getting started.

The dress is from RVNG Couture, and the jewelry is from Ataumbi Metals.

The sun pours through the windows and onto Chasinghorse’s cheeks as she sits in the make-up chair. We’re in Los Angeles to photograph the model in three different looks—each featuring Indigenous designers. It’s November, but it feels like summer. The model is surrounded by strangers ready to dress, photograph, and interview her, but she’s completely comfortable: Her eyes closed, and her hair is down. That’s because she’s also surrounded by kin. There’s Kerry Yamauchi, a Native Hawaiian make-up artist, and Evan Benally Atwood, a Diné photographer—an intentional celebration of Native American Heritage Month for this shoot. 

 

We’re running late, but Chasinghorse isn’t in a rush. She takes her time telling stories about Hollywood or her life in Alaska. She’s an open book as we talk about protecting her generation. It’s a topic that really gets Chasinghorse worked up—especially within the context of gun violence and sexual assault. She understands how the fossil fuel industry perpetuates the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. She speaks on the issue with authority, calling for the end of oil and gas pipelines that bring strange men into Native communities.

 

Chasinghorse is trying to build a future where Indigenous youth are thriving. She doesn’t want parties and drugs to be their escape. She wants them to turn to the land, instead. The model used to avoid parties in high school. Drugs or guns usually made an appearance, and she wasn’t with that. Alaska faces the highest rate of gun deaths in the U.S. with firearms being the state’s leading cause of death among children and teens.

 

These memories underpin Chasinghorse’s ultimate dream: opening Indigenous youth camps in Alaska and beyond. She imagines developing safe spaces in nature where Indigenous youth can plug into traditional knowledge and learn to cope with their trauma. She wants to cater to a range of interests, whether that’s hunting or wood carving. She wants to help them identify their superpower.

The shirt and hat are Libanati, skirt and earrings are B.Yellowtail, necklaces are Ataumbi Metals, and shoes are Hardeman.

“If they want to get into advocacy, we could have leaders within the movement come and offer different workshops to help them understand how it all works,” Chasinghorse said. 

 

It’s a spectacular ambition—one the model is serious about. She sees her fashion career as the vessel to making these youth camps a reality. And her career has still got a long way to go before she takes that next step. For now, she’s learning to embrace her new life. She’s finding joy in the little things—like her family’s homemade smoked salmon or new make-up routines.

“Everyone’s ready to breathe clean air and drink clean water. We shouldn’t have to fight for that.”

QUANNAH CHASINGHORSE

Chasinghorse won’t know peace, however, until her people do. That’s her motivation: the search for climate solutions and the fight for Indigenous sovereignty. “Everyone’s ready to breathe clean air and drink clean water,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to fight for that.” Chasinghorse tiptoes between her two worlds of model and activist with care, grace, and intention. She’s learning to weave these worlds together so that she can serve looks while spitting facts. She isn’t blinded by fame or cash. That’s not what she’s here for.

 

No, Chasinghorse is here to manifest change. She’s here to make dreams come true. She’s not only working for herself, but also for her people and the planet. She wants to see change go beyond her individual life and reverberate across the fashion industry, as well as the halls of Congress. Johnson, her auntie in Alaska, shared her own dreams for Chasinghorse.

 

“My dream for her is the same dream for my kids. I want them to be able to come home and go fishing in the summer,” she said through tears. “I want them to go out and hunt, to live off the land, and to drink clean water. I don’t want them to always have to fight.”

 

Chasinghorse is chasing a dream for all Indigenous people. She’s here to give back.

Credits

 

PRODUCTION Yessenia Funes

STYLING ASSISTANT Divine Hadden

MAKEUP Kerry Yamauchi

SET LOCATION Caster House

SPECIAL THANKS Corrie Caster (IMG Models)

 

View our 60 Seconds on Earth interview with Chasinghorse here.

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