Ribbon Skirt project connects Métis people to their culture 

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) recognized the first-ever National Ribbon Skirt Day on January 4. Two years ago, 10-year-old Isabella Kulak, a member of the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, showed up at school with local community members wearing ribbon skirts, and was shamed for doing so. Ribbon skirts are a source of individuality, pride, strength, and testament for all Indigenous Peoples who wear them. 

“I think finally seeing a day like this recognized speaks volumes to where we are at with education, and with awareness and knowledge about the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Columbia Valley Métis Association president, Monica Fisher. “It aids as a teaching about tradition, and about culture.”

The origins of ribbon skirts not only belong to the First Nations and Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island (North America) but also to the settlers who first brought their European designs to the prairies. Ribbon skirts we see today are a result of generations of inter-racial marriage and trade.

Ribbon skirts have held great importance in both ceremony and tradition. They were made of leather, furs, or bark. The use of long skirts in ceremonies and sweat lodges symbolized a connection to Mother Earth. It is believed that as the fringes of these danced gently on Mother Earth she would know (they) touched her as prayers were made. Some skirts were specific to phases in a woman’s life, from her moon time to pregnancy. The teachings of the Tipi (Dakota), the Mikiiwaap (Cree), and Enn Lozh (Michif) are linked to the teachings of the (ceremonies) in the ribbon skirt of today. 

Métis artist, Kaija Heitland, who lives on the traditional lands of the Cowichan tribes on Vancouver Island, was the 2022 recipient of MNBC’s Nakaatchihtow Artist Grant. Since receiving it in February, Heitland has used her grant to start The Ribbon Skirt Project, a Métis project based in B.C., to connect Métis individuals through the art of ribbon skirt making, history and shared traditions. 

“In all my work, I focus on the need to reconnect to our traditional arts as a method for self-reclamation and strengthening our community bonds,” Heitland said. “These investigations into ourselves are essential to the preservation and evolution of Métis art.”

Heitland began her company, Indigenous Nouveau, in 2020 as a platform to help to facilitate a greater visibility for the Métis community in BC, providing a space to showcase their unique artwork, beading, culture, and history. Through funding Heitland received from The Nakaatchihtow Arts and Culture Project Grant and MNBC she was able to create 100 ribbon skirt kits which she distributed with online classes and resources throughout various Métis communities in B.C. The kits were provided free of charge on a nomination basis to those in our communities who would benefit most.  This program is all inclusive and welcomes participants from all ages, genders, identities, and financial situations within the Métis community.  Participants can also become part of an online sewing circle to learn more about the about the rich history of the ribbon skirt.

“For us, as a Métis community, it also reminds us of things we want to either relearn, learn, or talk to our elders about, such as the traditions and the knowledge,” said Fisher. “It creates dialogue because colonization has been so successful that a lot of the knowledge has been lost for certain generations, so a day like this gives us more of a connection to our people and some of our more traditional ways.”