Cultural warriors now entrepreneurs with a Native flair 

Arlene Fairbanks (L) and Jessica Travis (R) got matching tattoos during Arlene's cancer journey. (Photo by Jessica Travis.)

By Lee Egerstrom

A pair of Twin Cities Native women with common bonds evolved over time to become advocates for cultural arts and understanding and have now emerged as entrepreneurs owning and operating Fire Mountain Fabrics & Supply.

Their online website clearly states their business objective: “Carrying the latest Native designed fabrics and supplies for our next ribbon and regalia projects.”

The business is up and running and does show an extensive collection of fabrics and colors. Shoppers can see for themselves in person at the Fire Mountain store at 6264 Boone Ave. N. in Brooklyn Park.

Owners Arlene Fairbanks, a Navajo originally from Arizona, and Jessica Travis, a Lakota and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, are planning an open house for their business on Saturday, Feb. 11, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Events will start with drummers, a singer and blessing, and drawings throughout the day,

The merchandise offered is geared to equip artists, parents and others who sew to make regalia and cloth products using fabrics that reflect the many Native cultures here in Minnesota and across the nation.

Fairbanks said Fire Mountain went online and worked with nonprofits and other groups last fall. “But we wanted a store. I found a property down the road from my home that would work,” she said.

They have taken over what was a thrift shop in a strip mall in Brooklyn Park.
Both women are versed in Native culture, in sewing and use of fabrics, and both have outside jobs as well.

Inside the new fabric store.

Travis is a registered nurse at M Health Fairview Hospital in Edina. “I have worked in the postpartum unit for nearly 18 years now, caring for new moms and babies,” she said.
Fairbanks, meanwhile, grew up in a Navajo hogan without electricity and running water at Jeddito, Ariz. She has had a business career over the years and has earned an accounting degree from Metropolitan State University. She is currently the finance manager at the American Indian Family Center in St. Paul.

Both have moved around, both have longed to keep culturally connected with their roots, and both have learned how sewing and the arts keep them and their families connected.
While a Lakota from the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock tribes, Travis was born on the Leech Lake Reservation and grew up in Bemidji in Minnesota. She got her RN nursing degree from the University of Southern Maine before returning to Minnesota.

“I have always enjoyed creating artwork,” Travis said. “My first influence was my dad. I remember him sitting at the kitchen table beading, creating jewelry and carving when I was younger.

“The first pair of moccasins that I made was for him when I was in my early twenties.”
Travis said she has spent many hours drawing, beading and sewing in the years since. “Sewing is a craft of its own and I’m still trying to master it with different fabrics.”

She became serious about sewing when she made regalia and beadwork when her five year old daughter started fancy shawl dancing. “My daughter sat with me as I was learning how to sew because I wanted her to be a part of the process in creating her regalia,” she said.

Travis has since made ribbon shirts and ribbon skirts for different family members. She does that now for customers through the fabric business.

Fairbanks moved off the Navajo reservation while in her teens. She received two accounting certificates from a tech school in Oklahoma City and worked as a store manager and as an accountant for businesses along the way before getting an accounting degree from Metro State.

She has a son who is part Ojibwe and Kickapoo. Both his uncles are dancers, and that became important. After a divorce, Fairbanks found she had no cultural ties in Minnesota. Something was missing after growing up with a traditional Navajo way of life. “I sought out the beat of the drum to feel a connection to my culture,” she said.

“In Minnesota, I only had local powwows to reconnect. As I took my boys to drum and dance within their school district, my youngest was drawn to grass dance and that was when I started sewing regalia pieces.

Fairbanks then had sisters move to Minnesota. “I encouraged my nieces and nephews to also dance,” she said. “I have made all their regalia.”

The two business partners met as parents through an Indian education program in Osseo Area Public Schools (ISD 279). Travis said this was where she learned how to sew, where she became friends with Fairbanks, and where the two have since worked together to help other parents learn to sew and make regalia.

“We have been sewing together since that time and we’ve been actively involved in the (school) district’s American Indian Parent Advisory Committee as well,” Travis said. “We advocate for our youth to ensure their cultural identity isn’t lost in mainstream schooling.”
The circles of friendships, and cultural connectedness, expand with these ties. They led to the naming of the new fabric business Fire Mountain and to bonds between friends.
Travis tells it this way:

“We knew right away that we wanted to incorporate ‘mountain’ into the name. When we first learned that Arlene (Fairbanks) would be in for a fight with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer, there were six of us, along with Arlene, that had mountains tattooed on our arms.

“The mountains represent Arlene’s journey of climbing the highest and most grueling mountain of her life – cancer. It connected all of us and let her know that she wasn’t fighting cancer alone and could always count on us to help her and lift her up.”

Fire, Travis said, is important to their Native way of life and ceremonies. “Fire is medicine and healing.”

It is working. A few weeks back, Fairbanks said, she had surgery. Tests show “they got all the cancer. I won’t need chemo,” she said. There will be other therapy, however, that will be manageable and tolerable with launching a new retail business.

Their Open House will be held on Saturday, Feb. 11, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Fire Mountain Fabrics, 6264 Boone Ave. N. in Brooklyn Park.

The Fire Mountain Fabrics & Supply website is at