Indigenous ribbon work was thrust into the spotlight when Interior of the Secretary Deb Haaland wore a traditional ribbon skirt for her swearing-in ceremony in Washington, D.C. Made by Agnes Woodward/ Plains Cree, her vibrant skirt featured imagery of corn and butterflies, was covered in colorful ribbons, and made a bold statement of cultural pride. “The ribbon skirt today reminds me that I have a power and that I carry a responsibility, to teach the future generations that they belong here and that they have the right to take up space however they choose,” she says. “It’s about taking back the shame that I carried as a young girl. ”When I wear a ribbon skirt, I am asking people to notice that I am confident in who I am as an Indigenous person, and I am asking them to respect that,” Woodward says. “Really that’s what they mean to me, the shedding of that shame.”
The history of ribbon used to adorn clothing within indigenous people has been documented for over 400 years. Silk ribbons, brought to North America by European traders, inspired a new, uniquely Native American art form. Mi’kmaq people created ribbon appliqué as early as 1611. Many ordinary objects from Europe had a powerful market value for American Indian tribes. Such is the case with silk ribbons, which were used by Woodland Indians to create a form of appliqué decoration not seen before in Europe but by the beginning of the 19th century, this unique style of decoration among several tribes began. The first recorded instance of ribbon work appliqué was on a Menominee wedding dress made in 1802. Ribbon work reached its peak in the last quarter of the 19th century, having moved out from its epicenter in the Great Lakes to tribes in the Prairies, Plains and Northeast. Those tribes who traded furs with the French are most known for their ribbon work, such as the Kickapoo, Mesquakie, Miami, Odawa, Ojibwa, Osage, Otoe-Missouria, Potawatomi, and Quapaw, but the practice has spread to many other tribes.
Initially, layers of ribbons were sewn on the edges of cloth, replacing painted lines on hide clothing and blankets. By the close of the 18th century, Native seamstresses created much more intricate appliqué ribbon work designs. Museums at this time also began to display early examples of ribbon work. By the 1970s, the same time as a native cultural resurgence and Indian activism, ribbon work was again being produced by various Prairie and Plains tribes. One can open Facebook, a newspaper and postings from across Indian America and see these works of art worn by many, many women representing all of our Tribal nations at many events for land, water, and most notably Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women bringing our women together.
This article is in response to a recent post by Dawn White – Seeing Eagle Woman, a Arikara/ Sahnish enrolled member of Fort Berthold, North Dakota, who is an 8-year Veteran of the US Army who has traveled the world and came home, and past 10 years worked in law enforcement where she has been recognized for her work as a Champion in Public Safety in Indian Country and addressing domestic violence and assaults on our Indigenous women. She responded to posts about rules making these skirts, colors, positioning of ribbons, etc. Dawn said “my whole life I have been raised to be a warrior for our people and I have continued to do so for years. I know I am a woman, but it is time our women empower other women. So much of our identity as native people and especially as native women in our respective tribes has been defined by others. We need to take our places as the mothers and daughters of our respective tribes in this universe and reclaim our strengths as the women of our tribes.” She said “ I was raised by strong Sahnish women my whole life and the teachings they have instilled into me. I have an ancestor on my grandmother’s lineage her name was Looking to Be Chief. She sat with the chiefs of our tribes. My grandmother Marie Deane- Wells was a council woman for our tribe. My other grandmothers Cecilia Brown and Fanny Whitman were strong Arikara women I admired in my life for their teachings, and they showed me to questions things even from men. Lastly, I was raised by my Grandparents Eugene and Marcella White Jr. Both direct descendants of Chiefs- Iron Bear, William Deane, and White Shield I. I talk about these ancestors because they taught me everything in life passing down knowledge to help me make my choices today that have defined me in this universe.
My grandmothers have instilled into me the power of prayer. Pray anytime and anywhere, pray for those hurting, pitiful, and even at times for yourself. My grandfathers, they taught me to fight not physically but also with my mind and to be opened to learn things, there is always a way to figure out things and never quit. These teachings have allowed me to succeed in my life, career and family.
I wrote my Facebook post after seeing another one that was about rules on making the “Ribbon Skirt” I choose to respond because these “rules” restrict us as native indigenous woman.” My post was not to be disrespectful or argue about who is right or wrong. There is a responsible way to correct anyone. And each indigenous tribe have their own protocols and social rules. Some of us are fortunate to have grandparents for those teachings and sadly some do not. My post can either make one feel defensive or you can learn from it and look at things from a different perspective and apply the new knowledge. But I want everyone to remember this, every single one of our ancestors were denied very basic human rights from religion to government and today we need to take our identity back from the very ones who try to define who we are and restrict our existence in this universe
I want our women, daughters, and two-spirited people to wear a ribbon skirt made by the hands and prayers of a native artist and loved ones and wear them proudly! This cultural shaming needs to stop amongst our native people. It hinders our greatness, and it doesn’t allow our young people to want to learn their ways. When I first wore my ribbon skirt in public at a non-traditional function, I honestly felt at first hesitant because of these very ones that judge and criticize. When I got to the function with many people which included elders, they told me I looked beautiful in my ribbon skirt. I knew then I was going to wear it all the time for those occasions. I felt empowered as a native Sahnish woman, and I took my place in this universe.
Since than I have worn my ribbon skirts for various functions now. I want our people to stop these rules and empower our people especially our daughters! Look at the atrocities that are going on daily against our women and children. We are survivors each and every single one of us! We are resilient! We have a lot of female lead movements in Indian country that have inspired indigenous artists and women throughout Indian country to create and showcase their art by creating beautiful ribbon skirts”.
As I view images of the past can see how ribbons used on dresses and skirts is another archetype connecting and bonding Native women. In the 9-30-19 edition of Leech Lake News “Ribbon Skirts are not only a distinct fashion piece to the non-indigenous eye but are also a historical and traditional form of identity among native women. Skirts are worn not only in traditional ceremonies but now in political protests, the U.S. Congress, and more recently the Minnesota Governor’s office. The ribbon skirt, which is a symbol of womanhood amongst native communities, tells a story of adaptation and survival. Mainly how tribal communities have adopted western culture and made it our own. The skirt: sacred, spiritual and political holds centuries worth of history between its seams.”
Understand that it’s both a political and spiritual significance when you see those ribbon skirts. It’s about surviving genocide, we’re still here, look at us, look at our beautiful nation here. The skirt ties us to the earth, ties us to the ceremonies, and ties us to our political unrest of issues for indigenous people. I would know if I saw women in a ribbon skirt in town that they were connected spiritually or politically to an issue that I could identify,” said Audrey Thayer, Leech Lake College Instructor. The ribbon skirt that we see today isn’t far off from what had been adapted in the past for ceremonies, but it has now gained new meaning as it reaches the floors of the US democratic system and a new status of symbolism of native pride.
Minnesota Lieutenant Governor and White Earth enrollee Peggy Flanagan has often been photographed wearing traditional regalia, even during her swearing in ceremony. Flanagan herself says the skirt is reflective of her identity and cultural background. “When I wear ribbon skirts, I feel the strength, love and protection of my Native sisters and aunties. It’s an embodiment of my role as an Anishinaabekwe and a symbol of my identity in political settings. I feel the most powerful when I wear ribbon skirts because they are a reminder that I am not alone and that there is an entire community and generations of ancestors who are with me at all times,” said Flanagan. Dawn White said, “wear your ribbon skirt with pride, we represent the people who they failed to destroy, our skirts are a reminder that we are still here, wear your ribbons skirts for the ones denied living their culture, speaking their language, singing their songs in ceremony”. .
Hecetu, LeMiye Mato- Can Ali Winyran