National Ribbon Skirt Day helps build awareness about the importance of Indigenous identity

Lawyer Anita Cardinal, a member of Woodland Cree First Nation proudly celebrated National Ribbon Skirt Day by posting a picture of herself wearing her ribbon skirt at her call to the bar. Photo by Darlene Hildebrandt.

by Kinnukana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter 

(ANNews) – On January 4, 2024, Canadians joined together to recognize and participate in National Ribbon Skirt Day. Observed for the first time last year, National Ribbon Skirt Day commemorates the experience of ten year old, Isabella Kulak, a member of Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan who was shamed by an educational assistant for wearing a handmade ribbon skirt to a formal day at the Kamsack Comprehensive School, in Saskatchewan. She was told that it was not formal enough for the event.

Afterwards, Isabella told her family about the incident and her great-aunt, Judy Pelly, made a social media post which sparked a wave of support. Following the incident, women and men wearing their ribbon skirts and shirts walked Isabella to school to show support. Others across Canada began to post pictures of themselves wearing ribbon skirts in her name. Isabella also received uplifting letters and photos from schools across Canada.

Lawyer Anita Cardinal wearing her ribbon skirt at her call to the bar. Photo by Darlene Hildebrandt.

After the incident, on January 4th, 2022, Quintin Robertson, director of education and CEO for Good Spirit School Division, apologized to the family and promised to do better. Since then, the school division has been following through, focusing on Indigenous education and reconciliation. On December 15th, 2022, in honour of Isabella, Manitoba Senator Mary Jane McCallum put forward Bill S-219 to formally establish Ribbon Skirt Day in Canada every January 4, and it received Royal Assent and is now an act of Parliament.

All too often, Indigenous people experience similar treatment like Isabella’s, and it reminds us of the ongoing challenges that Indigenous people face today. Indigenous people continue to encounter racism and inequity, and more work needs to take place on the shared path to reconciliation in Canada. Indigenous people have dealt with historical devastations with Residential Schools, Sixties Scoop, and Intergenerational Trauma and continue to navigate the complexities of preserving their culture in a western colonized society.

Ribbon Skirt Day fosters awareness and understanding among non-Indigenous Canadians, promoting cross-cultural dialogue and appreciation for the richness of Indigenous heritage. It serves as a reminder of the strength and resilience of Indigenous people and their enduring commitment to preserving and revitalizing their cultural practises that were taken away from them in the past.

It is necessary movements like this that continue to serve as platforms for Indigenous people to take a stand against racism and express their identity and assert their cultural resilience. Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people use the day as a platform to educate others, declare their cultural resilience and to express who they are and show pride in one’s culture.

Anita Cardinal, a member of Woodland Cree First Nation in Alberta and a lawyer, proudly celebrated National Ribbon Skirt Day by posting a picture of herself at her call to the bar while wearing her ribbon skirt and encouraging others to ‘wear them proudly.’ Anita said it was important for her to do her call in a ribbon skirt. She got the skirt from Yellowbird Designs in Edmonton, Alberta. Judge Cheryl Arcand-Kootenay, who led the calling also used a ribbon skirt and has been a wonderful mentor for Anita.

Anita said, “Obviously, I wanted to represent, to be in those spaces and places that we know were never built for us. But we are standing proud and loud in those spaces and reclaiming our own identity. At the calling, we had to wear certain things, like a robe, and everything is so formal, but I didn’t want to lose my identity in the process. The ribbon skirt symbolizes identity, resilience and survival, but it also symbolizes reclamation and pride.”

Ribbon skirts have a significant cultural importance. They are sewn with colourful ribbons and embellished with symbolic designs that are typically tied to ancestry, community, and spirituality. The skirts convey personal and communal stories. In the past, ribbon skirts were worn as part of Indigenous customs and ceremonies, but many wear ribbon skirts both formally and informally today.

In her legal work, Anita will focus on representing Indigenous children in court, especially those that are in-care. When children are most vulnerable and they see and talk to her while wearing her traditional clothing, they will be able to relate and feel like they are in a safe space.

Anita stated, “Reclaiming our power is an important part of reclaiming our identity. For so long we were told and made to feel ashamed and embarrassed of who we are. I think that by representing, we inspire others who see us, they become inspired and empowered. We are wearing our ribbon skirts everywhere from ceremony to the court room because we are reclaiming our power in those spaces. No more hiding or no more being made to feel uncomfortable, because we belong, this is our land.”

On National Ribbon Skirt Day and other days of recognition for Indigenous people throughout the year, we can all learn from past experiences and raise awareness to combat racism and discrimination against Indigenous People and learn to celebrate Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

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