Unity, pride and culture were some of the reasons that brought a crowd to an event in Winnipeg to mark the first National Ribbon Skirt Day in Canada.
Dozens of people in colourful skirts gathered Wednesday at Polo Park Shopping Centre to participate in a round dance and share stories about the traditional garment worn by Indigenous women at cultural events. The day came after a young Saskatchewan girl was shamed for wearing one to school several years ago.
Tracy Mentuk attended wearing one of her own creations — a horse-patterned skirt featuring blue, yellow and red satin ribbons with lace trim.
Wearing the skirt allows her to honour her ancestors and where she comes from, she said.
“I feel like I have a lot of power within myself. When I’m out, I feel so confident,” Mentuk said.
“We should embrace our ribbon skirts. We should wear them every day and let people know we are here as women. Women are strong and powerful.”
Grace Campbell remembered a time when she wasn’t allowed to wear one when she was forced to attend an Indian Day School as a child. Now, she wears one every day.
“I want to be seen as a strong woman. I walk with pride when I’m wearing my skirt,” she said.
In many cases, the skirts reflect the individual who wears them. Campbell’s included a brown ribbon symbolizing a dream she had where a large brown bear spoke to her.
Campbell brought her great-grandson, who donned his ribbon shirt, the equivalent of a ribbon skirt but designed for men.
She said she wanted to honour the girl who started the movement for the national day to commemorate ribbon skirts.
Isabella Kulak, a member of the Cote First Nation about270 kilometres east of Regina,wore a ribbon skirt to her rural school in December 2020 when she was 10 years old.
When Kulak wore it for a school formal day, her family said a staff member told her the outfit wasn’t formal enough,leaving the girl feeling dejected.
The school division later apologized, but her story sparked an online movement as Indigenous women shared photos of themselves wearing ribbon skirts as a way to honour their identity.
Manitoba Sen. Mary Jane McCallum’s bill to recognize the day passed in Parliament late last year. It’s being marked on Jan. 4, which was the date in 2021 when Kulak returned to class, accompanied by drumming and relatives wearing their own ribbon skirts.
Kulak, who is now in Grade 7, said she wanted people to mark the day by wearing something that shows they are proud of who they are, whether that is a ribbon skirt or not.
“Honour this day,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m really excited.”
Her mother, Lana, said they planned to attend a celebration on her daughter’s home nation on Wednesday.
“Isabella’s story shone a light on the enduring injustices, racism, and discrimination faced by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada every day, and on the importance of the role we all have to play in making sure that what happened never happens again to anyone in Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement Wednesday.
“I invite everyone to learn from Indigenous Peoples about their cultures and histories — from languages to traditional ceremonies and regalia to ancestral ties to the land.”
Other Indigenous leaders have called on Canadians to do the same, including the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
In a statement, National Chief Elmer St. Pierre said Kulak’s courage to share her culture should be applauded by all Canadians.
“For centuries, our cultures and traditions have been attacked and outlawed creating policies like the Indian Act, residential schools and the ’60s Scoop, but the courage of our young people is changing that.”
Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said while many First Nations people are very familiar with the significance of the ribbon skirt, Kulak’s experience demonstrates there is more learning to do.
“Today we honour young Isabella Kulak for her courage and resolve,” he said. “We lift up all our relations who do what they can to raise awareness of our cultures, along with combating racism and discrimination.”
The Assembly of First Nations, an advocacy organization representing more than 600 First Nations communities across Canada, also said it stood with Kulak and others celebrating First Nations heritage on Wednesday.