St. Joseph’s Indian School Gifts Female Students with Customized Ribbon Skirts

Darcy, a St. Joseph’s Family Service Counselor, and other staff members came together to make ribbon skirts in November.

“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.”

In North America, Indigenous women have adorned their clothing with ribbons for more than 400 years. The skirts have made a comeback in the last few years, with more women embracing this traditional element of Native American culture.

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.

Daphne, along with her classmates, chose the color of the fabric and ribbons she wanted featured on her ribbon skirt.

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.

Colorful ribbons, thread and fabric brought the sewing workroom to life.

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.

The girls determined if they wanted their ribbons touching or to have spaces between them. They found that a glue stick was a handy tool for temporarily sticking the ribbons to their fabric before sewing.

“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.

Slow and steady, the girls took to the sewing machines to complete their ribbon skirts under the watchful instruction of volunteers.

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.

The girls were very proud of their creations and about the opportunity to create a ribbon skirt that reflected their personalities.

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.”

Learn more about the great experiences taking place at St. Joseph’s Indian School by visiting our website or following us on social media

Author: St. Joseph's Indian School

At St. Joseph's Indian School, our privately-funded programs for Lakota (Sioux) children in need have evolved over 90 years of family partnership, experience and education. Because of generous friends who share tax-deductible donations, Native American youth receive a safe, stable home life; individual counseling and guidance; carefully planned curriculum based on Lakota culture and individual student needs and tools to help build confidence, boost self-esteem and improve cultural awareness. All of this helps children to live a bright, productive, possibility-filled future.

22 thoughts on “St. Joseph’s Indian School Gifts Female Students with Customized Ribbon Skirts”

  1. loved the history lesson and the fact that the girls could design their own skirt and learn to sew as well. Quite a wonderful project – on they’ll remember for a long time. Plus new living skills. Good planning.

    1. Thank you so much for te explaination of the importance of the ribbon skirts. I knew about them from another article but did not know the history, I think that giving each girl her own skirt is a wonderfilled idea that enhanced thier lives by giving them a part of thier idenity. Great Project!!

  2. What a wonderful gift for the girls at St. Joseph’s. Not only will they have a tangible item from their Lakota culture, but also have knowledge and the experience of sewing – a wonderful skill to have.

  3. Congratulations all. Volunteers, students and co-workers working together. What a wonderful experience to create and sew with friends.

  4. What a beautiful story and wonderful project ! Thank you for all you do to support the students in all aspects of their lives and the lives of staff and volunteers as well.

  5. I will comment regarding the making and wearing of the skits:: This also envokes a teaching of MODESTY among the community of both boys and girls.

  6. To Myah, I am of Spirit Tribe. My career choice, as a young girl, was to enter the military as both a Marine and Air Force member at the time of enlistment. Remember the military Chaplains should you work among military persons as either a civilian employee on base, or as a member of the Air Force.

  7. My wife and I have been fascinated by St. Joe’s for quite a few years We love to hear about the many interesting things going on. We are fascinated by the “indigenous”. peoples culture. We like to support the school when we can and as much as we can. I, personally, and very happy to provide whatever support we can.
    Keep up the wonderful work you are doing. Unfortunately, my wife passed away last June but I will continue to follow and support St. Joe’s.

    1. We are so sorry for your loss. May God bless you and thank you for your continued support of the students at our school. We appreciate you!

  8. We were required to learn to sew in school. We were all going to make skirts in class. I honestly had no interest in sewing, and my skirt fell apart once I got it home. Many, many years later a friend showed me a nightgown she was making, and I was “hooked.” I only had a treadle machine, but I sewed everything from blankets to men’s shirts, suits and dresses for myself. I can’t begin to say how much I loved sewing. I upgraded to quilting and children’s clothing. My son’s little suit was passed down until it was threadbare. Eventually I progressed to an electric machine, which I still have (along with several others.)

  9. This was a wonderful article! As a longtime seamstress (more than 50 years), I was especially happy to see each girl select the fabric and ribbons for her own creation. Making “one of a kind” items is one of the primary joys of sewing. It’s all about self expression! Learning to sew is a skill to last a lifetime.

  10. Being a seamstress myself, I can appreciate the effort the girls put into this, choosing their colors and putting it all together. What a great project for them! Congratulations to all involved.

  11. What a wonderful project, and a great gift of identity coupled with skill. I love that the children were able to select their own fabric and ribbons, and especially that the older girls could sew their own ribbon skirts. I have been doing hand crafts (sewing, crocheting and knitting among others) for 58 years. Such skills are so valuable in life. They have practical applications such as creating personal clothing; but also allow creation of unique and loving gifts. I’m delighted St. Joseph’s is opening this opportunity to their students.

  12. I am so pleased that my donation may have been used to preserve a Lakota tradition. Letting each girl design her own ribbon skirt made the gift extra special.

  13. Thank you for enlightening me with the “Ribbon Skirt” story.
    The girls chose their choices of beautiful colors. They even their own sewing skills to complete them to the finished product!! Wonderful!!

    Bless you all,

  14. To me, learning to sew your own ribbon skirt was the most important thing It gave a special twist to the tradition and a real sense of accomplishment.

  15. I am so glad to hear that girls are learning to sew. My mother and aunt taught me to sew doll clothes when I was 9. I later had sewing class in school. Since then I made most of my own clothes and many for friends and family. I am hoping to pass the love of sewing to my grandchildren. It is a way of being creative and industrious. At times it can also help to calm you down. I am glad they are also learning about their heritage and traditions.

  16. I am so interested in the ribbon skirt project. I read all the comments as well. It sounds like a wonderful project. Congratulations to all students, staff and volunteers!

    1. Thank you! This was such a wonderful project. We’re glad you enjoyed reading about it. God bless!

  17. Beautiful skirts just love the colors .Teaching the girls about their culture and not forgetting who they are.We should never forget about our culture.My God bless you and everyone at St Joe’s

  18. The ribbon skirt sound like an amazing project. It teaches young girls how to sew. It instills
    A sense of pride in something they made for themselves . Keep up the good work ! St Joseph’s. Is a truly wonderful place to be. God. Bless . Thank you for the story. Bettie. Recio

  19. Oh my Donna, you reminded me of my mom and how she hated sewing when it was a big chore making clothing for enough hired men to work 8 sections back when it took a lot of manpower still. And how when she got married and had a family of a large size over a very short period she NEEDED to sew!! Besides being an elementary school teacher she had to take in sewing for extra money (my dad was an alcoholic and burned through all the family’s money), as well as sewing all our clothes, and that made us targets for teasing, but we we raised that the most important of the virtues the White Buffalo Calf Maiden taught was that of humility, so being pushed down to be humbled is a great gift from Creator in teaching us that virtue in a very efficient and poignant way… it’s a way that often makes no sense to a settler mindset, but not always! No offense meant.

    My grandfather who was very old as my mother was one of the youngest of 17 and I was one of the youngest of just over one hundred first cousins so he was a grandpa to me at a very old age. He taught me a lot of the old ways that I’ve never been able to find anywhere else, not online, not getting in touch with universities with Indigenous Studies departments, not in speaking with many hundreds of people, which at once makes me feel very special at having been given such a gift, but such a sadness that these teachings through stories will very likely die forever with me. Man, just typing that made it hit me hard in the chest again.

    Some of his shorter sayings, ahhh, I feel terrible at how many I’ve forgotten, but this one always comes to me at just the right time, that the strength of the back is fashioned by the weight of the burden, so when you feel Creator is treating you unfair in reality they are showing you how very much they believe in you! I believe that one, and cling to it during the difficult times in life.

    I should leave it at that, this message is getting to be so long. Thank you to those who read all of this, I’m Oglala on all my dad’s side and Mniconjou on all my mom’s side.

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