By Julia Magsombol 

Local Journalism Initiative 

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A single piece of clothing can tell an important story about survival, strength, resilience and identity. Just ask any Indigenous person in Canada who celebrated National Ribbon Skirt Day on January 4.

Ribbon skirts are handmade skirts worn by many Indigenous women. They can be worn during Powwow ceremonies and even in daily routines. They have different meanings and symbols in other communities and are considered sacred as they represent the personal connection between the wearer and their culture. 

The skirts are traditionally worn by First Nations and Métis peoples.

Like its name, the rows of colourful ribbons are sewn at the bottom. The colourful strips are all symbolic and always tell a story. It can sometimes symbolize places, directions, and connections to Mother Earth. 

The history of the ribbon skirt is diverse. It can initially be traced back to the 1800s. European women brought the skirts to North America. 

During this time, to express Indigenous women’s pride and cultural identity, many started adding brightly coloured silk ribbons and embroidered patterns to these skirts. 

Due to the Indian Act of 1876, a Potlatch Ban hindered many ceremonial items and practices, including the wearing of ribbon skirts. The ban imprisoned many Indigenous Peoples and settlers confiscated these precious ceremonial items. 

The Potlatch Ban was lifted in 1951 but  entire generation of Indigenous Peoples still grew up deprived of cultural knowledge. Thousands of irreplaceable ceremonial masks, robes, blankets and other potlatch items were lost forever. 

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The January 4 celebration was inspired by the experience of Isabella Kulak, a member of the Cote First Nation Saskatchewan. She was shamed for wearing a ribbon skirt to a ‘formal dress day’ at her elementary school in December 2020. As a result, a movement across the country saw Indigenous women wearing their ribbon skirts in solidarity with Kulak. 

Mary Jane McCallum, a member of Cree First Nation and Manitoba senator, passed a bill that declared January 4, 2023 as the first National Ribbon Skirt Day. Although a celebration, it is also meant to remember the harsh laws that upended ancestral history. 

Like Kulak, many children are leading the way; they are speaking up, saying that knowing our history is essential so that history does not repeat itself. 

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