“That looks very nice — very ambitious,” said Darcy, a Family Service Counselor (FSC), as she looked down at the 15 creamy-colored ribbons laid along its paired yellow fabric.
Larsten, the high school student who had chosen the fabric and ribbons of blue, white, green, purple and brown, smiled.
“That’s because I’m ambitious, too,” she said.
“Yes, you are!” agreed Patty, the staff volunteer paired with the motivated young woman.
November marked the beginning of a significant cultural identity project for young women at St. Joseph’s Indian School. The Mission Integration department launched its effort to provide a ribbon skirt to every female student. The skirts would be customized to each student, uniquely representing their personalities and tastes — from bold and ambitious to classic and serene.
“We wanted the girls to have ownership of their skirts and have it not be something they have to borrow or give back,” said LaRayne, St. Joseph’s Native Studies lead. “This will be their individual ribbon skirt.”
What is a Ribbon Skirt?
In North America, Indigenous women have adorned their clothing with ribbons for more than 400 years. Silk ribbons, brought by European traders, inspired this uniquely Native American art form.
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 ribbon work designs. Ribbon skirts reached their peak by the beginning of the 19th century, moving out from the Great Lakes to tribes on the Prairies, Plains and Northeast.
The skirts have kept evolving over time. Now, in the 21st century, a renewed sense of humbly claiming one’s culture is elevating the importance and value of ribbon skirts to affirm Native American identity.
Students can wear ribbon skirts for any occasion, but women wear them most often to school, ceremony and church. As a “St. Joe’s twist,” LaRayne said some of the skirts also feature a hidden pocket for personal items or a cell phone.
The Ribbon Skirt Project
At the elementary level, staff at St. Joseph’s have volunteered and begun the process to sew a ribbon skirt for every female student. Seventh and eighth grade girls had the opportunity to pick-out their fabric and ribbons earlier in November before it was packaged into a kit for volunteers to sew together.
The skirts will all vary in design because the girls vary in personality. For instance, Daphne chose bright, vibrant colors.
“It was fun to pick out fabric and colors to show who I am and express myself in this way,” she said.
While other students took a different approach.
“I chose gray, black, white and blue for my skirt,” said Aveyon, another student. “They’re calming colors and will match everything.”
Patty, the Equine Specialist at St. Joseph’s, happily volunteered to sew a ribbon skirt for a student. Native American herself, she said teaching moments like this are important so cultural traditions survive.
“We are all about teaching here at St. Joe’s. The girls can take this teaching moment and pass it down to their daughters or nieces one day,” said Patty. “Our culture could disappear, and if we the people can’t keep the stories alive, then it will be lost. What I know about loss is, once things are gone, it’s hard to get them back.”
Before Patty started sewing a student’s ribbon skirt, she felt it best to attend the high school girls’ sewing clinic on Saturday, November 20, to renew her sewing skills. High school girls had the special opportunity to not only choose their skirt’s elements, but also make their skirts themselves with the assistance of volunteers.
Ribbon Skirt Sewing Clinic
The sewing clinic’s workroom came alive with rich fabric, dyed ribbons and tinted threads. Even the scissors used were hued in shades of red and purple.
Darcy and Amanda, another FSC at St. Joseph’s, led the charge during the sewing clinic. When Darcy was not standing at the front of the room giving directions, she was weaving between tables to assist the girls and volunteers.
Some girls chose many ribbons while other chose them minimally. One dress showcased neon colors, and another depicted a colorful rainbow. Other designs were delicate with sunset-colored ribbons on muted gray fabric.
“This is my first time making a ribbon skirt — my first time sewing anything, actually,” said Angie, a student, as she ironed her pale pink skirt fabric.
Angie was not alone. It was the first sewing of any kind for the majority of the students. So while the day provided a rich cultural opportunity, it also provided students with a valuable life skill for the future.
When the group had finished temporarily adjoining the ribbons to fabric, it was time to move to the Personal Living Skills classroom where the sewing machines were patiently waiting.
The Zig-Zag Stitch
As the girls laid their skirt fabrics beside their sewing machines, most stopped to smooth the shiny ribbons and paused to view the task ahead. Diligent work had taken place to choose the perfectly colored fabric with the perfectly paired ribbons. Now it was time to put the items together.
The stich the girls chose to sew the ribbons to their fabric was the zig-zag stitch. As the sewing needles moved along the perfectly straight edge of the ribbon, the thread wove right and left — this way and that. Its journey was not straight. It was not perfect. Nevertheless, it was beautiful the way it crossed from silk ribbon to cotton fabric.
In that moment, the stitch became almost symbolic. If they have not already, the young women will find out soon enough that sometimes life jags. Other times it stops a person mid-stitch, causing them to reverse, pull out the stitching mistakes and start again. The finished product rarely turns out straight.
Similarly, as the girls wear their ribbon skirts, they may find their unique journeys thread them this way and that way. However, they can stay grounded in the overall picture that their ribbon skirt represents. A picture and a path that humbly declares, “I belong here, and I claim my identity as an Indigenous person.”
Both gifts — the ribbon skirt and this great acknowledgment — are priceless.
“It was told to me that Tȟuŋkášila (Creator) will know you by your ribbons on your skirt. As you walk in life, this skirt will show who you are and where you came from,” said Patty. “It shows your strength.”