Diné Founder of Orenda Tribe Translates Her Entrepreneurial Mind to Pandemic Aid

“I have a really intensive skill set as a business and fashion executive to apply to pandemic aid,” Orenda Tribe’s Founder Amy Yeung, Diné, tells Native Business. (Ramsay De Give, Courtesy Orenda Tribe)

After a 30-year career designing for fast-fashion corporations, Amy Yeung (Diné) launched Orenda Tribe, her label focused on repurposed and upcycled vintage pieces. Her transition to sustainably producing one-of-a-kind garments in the United States was inspired by the way she was raising her daughter, Lily (who, now 18, models most of Orenda Tribe’s designs). 

“I worked for some of the biggest companies that were producing globally,” Yeung says. “My daughter was like seven, at that age you start instilling values that will be with your children for the rest of their life. We were recycling and taking care of Mother Earth and understanding what it meant to grow our own food.”

Yeung recognized her contradiction, working for landfill-fashion brands that relied on high consumption. “I realized, I can’t be a good mom and continue doing what I do, because it’s not authentic to who I am, and I just quit — at the height of my career,” Yeung tells Native Business.  

Then a single mom, Yeung shifted her entire lifestyle to produce small-batch, sustainable fashion, while consulting other brands that desired to manufacture domestically. In 2013, Orenda Tribe was born. 

Her business took off with color-rich designs, including her popular flight suits from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, purchased and restored from vintage and surplus dealers. Yeung collaborates with her fellow Indigenous artisans, while reinvesting her profits back into her Diné community. 

“I knew how to raise the money, because I’ve been making wealth happen for 35 years,” Yeung says. “The money came, but we had to know how to spend it, how to get it from point A to point B. We’ve delivered close to a quarter of a million in aid. As a small business doing that much is a pretty big number.” Pictured: Amy Yeung’s daughter Lily (Courtesy Orenda Tribe)

Shortly after the creation of Orenda Tribe, Yeung relocated from Los Angeles to New Mexico to reconnect with her culture near the Dinétah, her original homelands. Her birth mother is Diné from the Navajo reservation, though Yeung was adopted as a child. Her cultural education is in its “infancy,” she says, though her love for her people feels more like that of an elder. 

That’s particularly true since March, when Yeung shifted Orenda Tribe to focus on critical aid. That’s when the coronavirus pandemic barreled across the Navajo Nation, quickly resulting in higher COVID-infection rates per capita than in New York or New Jersey. 

“I was an upcycle fashion clothing company back in March, and I was really happy doing that jam. But now it’s a different time; there’s a different reason for me to be here on the planet,” Yeung says. 

“We can all shift and pivot and be a better use to humanity,” she adds. “Unfortunately our numbers aren’t improving dramatically. So I think this is going to be something I do for a very long time.” 

Yeung’s expertise leading major fashion brands seemingly equipped her for this kind of work — sourcing material, moving product, production to “creating wealth for companies.” Getting PPE and financial aid to her Tribe isn’t much different from “fast fashion” in Yeung’s eyes. 

For instance, Orenda Tribe delivers civilian PPE through a collaboration with Bethany Yellowtail — the Northern Cheyenne/Crow founder of the celebrated fashion label B.YELLOWTAIL, based in downtown Los Angeles. Together the companies upcycle leftover fabrics from Orenda Tribe’s B2B activewear clients. “We make those into civilian masks,” Yeung says. 

READ MORE: Meet Bethany Yellowtail, Founder of B.YELLOWTAIL and a Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneur 

“There’s only a certain amount of overhead I need to survive. It’s a very low number, because I personally don’t aspire to wealth anymore. I actually want to give everything away,” says the 55-year-old entrepreneur, “because I did all that for 35 years and it didn’t make me happy. I’m happier now with very little than I was 15 years ago, when I was buying designer brands and thinking things like that made me happy.” (Pierre Manning,Courtesy Orenda Tribe)

“I can take what I used to do and turn it into a very quick business that allows me to get the best product out to Native populations at the cheapest price, because I’m only paying for the cost of sewing,” she explains, contrasting it to purchasing and shipping cheap threads from China, waiting eight weeks for the material to get to the U.S., and paying the same amount of money for it.

“I do something really high quality and long-lasting in downtown LA to keep the money in the United States, and be able to shift 2,000 a day. That just makes a lot of sense from a business model,” she adds. 

Since the start of the pandemic, Orenda Tribe has delivered nearly 100,000 masks to residents of the Navajo Nation. “I have a really intensive skill set as a business or fashion executive to apply to pandemic aid,” Yeung says. 

For the meantime, Orenda Tribe goes through a fiscal sponsor, NDN Collective, because she’s not incorporated yet as a 501(c)(3). “They’re brilliant community leaders and a fantastic partner,” Yeung adds. 

Orenda Tribe and NDN Collective are actively collecting donations and converting funds for surplus, such as purchasing 19,000, gallons of hand sanitizer, as well as providing N95 masks and surgical gowns for local hospitals short on supply. “We work with Dr. Michelle Paul, who’s based out of Flagstaff, (Arizona) and we get that to all the 630 and clinics and doctors that are in need of PPE,” Yeung shares. 

Buying in bulk is a business strategy Yeung says is essential to pandemic aid. “We should be creating bunkers of stuff that we know we’re going to need, so we’re not constantly scrambling to source it and get it into the Southwest. This is something we know that’s going to be coming again and again and again until we get a vaccine.”

“I’m using an entrepreneurial mind — buy as much as you possibly can, at the cheapest possible cost, and bring it all in at one time,” she says. “Buying a truckload at a time is very expensive.” 

In that vein, Orenda Tribe has shifted to “invest in the future of what’s needed,” she says. 

Orenda Tribe and NDN Collective have also channeled raised funds toward food for COVID-positive Diné patients during their incubation and recovery. Many individuals impacted by COVID have been displaced from their homes, away from their families. “Those people needed food and medicine. They needed something they could easily prepare. So we had a whole kit of nonperishable foods — very easy to prepare, nutrient dense, protein dense — geared toward somebody that needs to recuperate from the virus,” Yeung says. 

Orenda Tribe’s shop in Albuquerque has been completely converted into a command center, receiving critical aid shipments. Meanwhile, Yeung sleeps in the back. Pictured: Amy Yeung’s daughter Lily modeling Orenda Tribe (Courtesy Orenda Tribe)

And when free school lunch delivery ended in July, Orenda Tribe and NDN Collective teamed up with World Central Kitchen to provide meal kits to thousands across Dinétah. “I know these kids and how much their families depend on that nutrition,” Yeung says. 

Voices of Siihasin (Hope) Benefit Concert 

Orenda Tribe and NDN Collective are employing myriad creative ways to raise money for essential goods, PPE and food for the people of the Dinétah. 

One such way is through Orenda Tribe’s project, Children of the Nááts’íilid, meaning “children of the rainbows.” 

Yeung partnered with her dear friend Jewel, the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter, actress and mental health advocate, and Radmilla Cody, Diné, an award-winning singer and anti-domestic violence activist, to create the Voices of Siihasin, a live streamed concert to benefit Diné children. 

The July 5th Voices of Siihasin (Hope) Benefit Concert was co-hosted by celebrated artist, Lyla June, a Diné environmental scientist, doctoral student, educator, community organizer and musician. “We are always stronger when we join together. ‘Voices of Siihasin’ is an embodiment of interdependence and synergy, something Diné ancestors valued very much,” says June.

READ MORE: International Speaker Lyla June Talks Creating Businesses That Give & Heal 

The benefit, live-streamed on Jewel’s official Facebook page, was produced by Conscious City Guide and sponsored by NDN Collective. The “Voices of Siihasin” Benefit Concert included performances by world-renowned artists and Navajo musicians such as: 

Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros), AWOLNATION, Bea, Chasity Salvador (Acoma Pueblo), Cody Blackbird (Eastern Band Cherokee), Emily Scott Robinson, Frank Waln (Sičangu Lakota), Jason Mraz, Jessa Calderon (Tongva/Chumash), Jewel, Kinsale Hues (Diné), Kip Moore, KT Tunstall, Larkin Poe, Lindsay Ell, Liv the Artist (Comanche), Lukas Nelson, Lyla June (Diné/Cheyenne), Mic Jordan (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), Mike Posner, Q’orianka Kilcher (Quechua), Rachel Platten, Radmilla Cody (Diné/ Naahiłí), Sia, Supaman (Apsaalooke), Tall Pall (Leech Lake Ojibwe),  Tanaya Winder (Diné/Duckwater Shoshone Paiute/Pyramid Lake Paiute/Southern Ute), Tyler Bryant, and Wesley Schultz (of The Lumineers).

Funds generated by ‘Voices of Siihasin’ enabled Orenda Tribe and partner World Central Kitchen to deliver 47,000 food boxes to children, equating to 927,360 servings of non-perishable food — the largest food distribution project to take place within Dinétah. The initiative ensures the safety of families and children, allowing them to stay home, reduce travel, and receive nutrient-dense foods amid a food gap and pandemic.

“The kids are the future of the Tribe,” says Yeung, who focuses much of her give-back on uplifting and empowering the next generations. 

Yeung reflects on how the Diné have endured germ, cultural and environmental warfare — “the Spanish flu and continual issues with environmental genocide. But we’re still here, and we still will be here after this,” Yeung says. “Our children are sacred. Protecting them and their mental health right now is a high priority for me as a mom, and as somebody doing critical aid. I just want to make sure our children are okay.” 

Orenda Tribe has delivered close to a quarter of a million dollars in aid to Dinétah residents during the pandemic. Ultimately, to be successful in pandemic critical aid, it requires more than a giving heart. It requires agility and strong business sense. “You have to have a business and an entrepreneurial mind, because it changes. It’s constantly fluid, and you have to be able to pivot. Thank God I worked fast-fashion because it prepared me to be really fast on my feet during all this craziness,” Yeung says. 

That said, the business questions Yeung asks herself look different today than they did when she worked in fast-fashion: “How do I use this increase in wealth to reinvest in our youth? How can I use that to support all of our young artists that don’t have jobs right now? How can I buy from them and convert that into sales on my web store, so the increase in growth allows me to reinvest again in the future of our Tribe?”