Saskatchewan

Aunt of girl who inspired first National Ribbon Skirt Day says she is proud

Day in honour of Isabella Kulak, who was shamed for wearing a ribbon skirt to school

Posted: January 04, 2023

Isabella Kulak, left, and Senator Mary Jane McCallum, the Cree Senator who sponsored the bill to proclaim National Ribbon Skirt Day, pose at an event at Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex on Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan Wednesday. (Submitted by Judy Pelly)

Canada is celebrating its first national Ribbon Skirt Day Wednesday, in support of a young Indigenous girl who stood up to something she thought wasn't right.

It all started in December 2020 when Isabella Kulak, a Grade 5 student at Kamsack Comprehensive School in southeastern Saskatchewan and a member of Cote First Nation, wore a ribbon skirt to school for a formal day. Kulak said school staff told her the skirt was not considered to be formal wear.

Kulak's dress was handmade by her aunt Farrah Sanderson, designed with colour and floral patterns that represent their culture. The then-10-year-old was proud to wear it and wanted to represent her Ojibway traditions, but felt shamed that day.

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Ribbon skirts have different meanings for each person who wears them, but for many, the skirt is a symbol of resilience. In the 1800s, some Indigenous ceremonies — and the clothing and ceremonial items associated with them — were banned by the Canadian government under the terms of what was known as the Potlatch Law. Ceremonies wouldn't be legal again until 1951.

From left, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Vice-Chief Aly Bear, Isabella Kulak, her mother Lana Kulak and Cote First Nation Chief George Cote pose at an event at Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex on Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan Wednesday. (Submitted by Judy Pelly)

After Isabella told her family about the incident, her great-aunt, Judy Pelly, made a Facebook post and sparked a wave of support from people all over Canada, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and around the world.

People started posting pictures of themselves wearing ribbon skirts. Isabella received letters and photos from schools across Canada, along with 20 ribbon skirts and many ribbons to make her own.

Kamsack Comprehensive Institute eventually issued an apology to Isabella and declared Jan. 4, 2022, to be Ribbon Skirt Day at the school.

Then in 2022, Senator Mary Jane McCallum put forward a bill to recognize National Ribbon Skirt Day. The bill was successful, and Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, is the first time the day is being recognized.

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Sanderson said she is proud of her niece for standing up and speaking out.

"Most of the time, when any kind of injustice happens, all the kids just stay silent about it. But she brought it to our attention, she shared with us that she knew it was wrong," she said.

Isabelle Kulak, second from right, poses in front of her school with Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote, a ribbon skirt maker, right, her daughter Heather Ketchemonia, second from left, and mother Stella Ketchemonia. (Submitted by Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote)

​​​Isabella and aunt Farrah will be celebrating the day at the Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex, which is hosting events to showcase Indigenous culture and pride.

Lianne Nekrasoff says her family will be celebrating the day by wearing their skirts and walking around the Cornwall Mall in Regina.

Lianne and her granddaughter Olivia, 8, pose in their ribbon skirts. (Submitted by Lianne Nekrasoff)

Nekrasoff, who is non-Indigenous, has three grandchildren from Cowessess First Nation who were given skirts by their maternal kokum Deena Ryder. 

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"It's a way for them to represent their culture and feel proud," Nekrasoff said. "It just shows strength and empowerment of the women within their culture."

She said she will wear a skirt with them to show them to be proud of their cultural dress.

Lianne Nekrasoff's granddaughters Olivia, 8, Sophia, 6, and Ava, 4, pose in their ribbon skirts. (Submitted by Lianne Nekrasoff)

Nekrasoff is hoping next year will bring more events celebrating the day and said its up to non-Indigenous people to help support that in whatever ways they can.

"It's up to us, those that are non-Aboriginal, to put on a celebration of these ribbon skirts and what it means to the First Nation community and hear their stories" she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Louise BigEagle
CBC Journalist

Louise is a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan since September 2022. She is Nakota/Cree from Ocean Man First Nations. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Regina in Media, Arts and Performance.