Nova Scotia

We'koqma'q First Nation helps keep tradition alive with ribbon skirt bank

Traditional clothing is often worn at Mi'kmaw ceremonies but not everyone has the items in their closets.

Almost 30 garments are available to be loaned out to people who want to participate in traditional ceremonies

Miranda Gould of We'koqma'q First Nation displays some of the ribbon skirts and shirts that she created for the community's first ribbon skirt bank. (Submitted by Cassandra Googoo)

A We'koqma'q First nation clothing designer has outfitted a new clothing bank in her home community to help other people connect with their Mi'kmaw culture.

Miranda Gould began creating ribbon skirts almost 30 years ago, after attending ceremonies with women who were wearing them.

The 49-year-old said her early creations were limited to a specific design, but now she creates all kinds of patterns on the floor-length garments adorned with brightly coloured bands of ribbon. 

"It's what makes you happy," Gould said. "Everyone carries an aura, or an energy, and colours that make them happy."

Skirts date back to colonial times

Ribbon skirts date back to North America's colonial past when Indigenous women used ribbons brought from Europe to decorate their clothing, usually around the hemline.

The skirts are often worn at powwows, weddings, graduations and other special events and ceremonies. Many people who wear the skirts will personalize them with patterns and colours that mean something to them or their family. 

A group of women is shown wearing some of Miranda Gould's creations at an Indigenous fashion show in Membertou in September. (Submitted by Miranda Gould)

Gould, who showcased many of her designs at a recent Indigenous fashion show in Membertou, said many people are now wearing ribbon skirts as everyday clothing. She said traditional teachings help explain why so many Indigenous women started wearing skirts as a garment of choice. 

"You're a life giver," she said. "We bear children and you allow that energy to flow from Mother Earth to your womb as a sign of respect in that connection to Mother Earth. And so when you wear your skirt, you walk in honour of life."

Clothing bank created to help other residents

The We'koqma'q band council created the clothing bank after hearing from people who didn't have the right clothing for the ceremonies.

Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley says she was inspired by the Native Women's Association in Millbrook, which operates a similar clothing bank. 

"We even had some people that needed a ribbon shirt for a funeral and they didn't have one," said Bernard-Daisley.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful initiative."

Bernard-Daisley said it's touching to see the tradition return after it was almost quashed by the impacts of colonization and Canada's residential school system. 

She said there is a growing trend of people taking part in traditions such as pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges or grandmother moon rituals. 

"Ceremony, it helps you and it grounds you and it just sometimes takes some weight off you, off your shoulders," Bernard-Daisley said.

"It's up to us as leaders to enhance and to promote that and to support that initiative and to take part in [ceremonies] as well."

Almost 30 garments available to be signed out

In total, 25 ribbon skirts and three shirts were finished last week for the We'koqma'q clothing bank program.

People who want to borrow a ribbon skirt or shirt must sign them out at the We'koqma'q elder's centre, and return them, so they can be loaned to others.

Gould spent a whole month on her creations and is proud that they will connect her people to their culture. 

"It's a sense of accomplishment in the work that I have tried to achieve in my lifetime," she said. 

"And to leave a legacy like that is very honourable for me."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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