Saskatchewan

'It acknowledges our place': RCMP explores adding ribbon skirt as part of ceremonial uniform

After 10-year-old Saskatchewan girl Isabella Kulak started a movement of ribbon skirt wearing, she was made an honorary member of the Indigenous women advisory committee.

Isabella Kulak, 10-year-old known for starting a ribbon skirt movement, made honorary member of RCMP committee

Isabella Kulak meets with RCMP Insp. Honey Dwyer and two Kamsack RCMP officers, Staff Sgt. Noel Allard and Sgt. Megan Stringfellow. (Submitted by Inspector Honey Dwyer)

Indigenous RCMP officers could soon pair the red serge with a ribbon skirt — if it is approved as a ceremonial uniform.

An RCMP review began in 2019, but calls to add the cultural garment have been renewed, sparked in part by 10-year-old Isabella Kulak, a member of Cote First Nation, who was the catalyst for a national ribbon skirt wearing movement.

In December 2020, Isabella wore her ribbon skirt to school in Kamsack, Sask., for a "formal day," but was shamed about her choice by an educational assistant, who suggested her outfit didn't match and wasn't formal enough.

On Jan. 4, after the holiday break, Isabella went back to the school, proudly wearing her skirt once more.

That prompted an outpouring of support from people around the world, who posted photos of themselves wearing ribbon skirts in support of Isabella. She even drew acknowledgement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called her "courageous" during a January news conference.

Isabella's story also resonated with Insp. Honey Dwyer, a 26-year RCMP veteran who is in charge of Saskatchewan's Indigenous Police Services Unit and a Lac La Ronge Indian Band member. 

Earlier this month, Isabella and her family met with Dwyer and two Kamsack RCMP officers as the 10-year-old was made an honorary member of Saskatchewan's Indigenous women's advisory committee.

"She's brought attention to others who are non-Indigenous to see what the ribbon skirt represents and that we should have pride in that ribbon skirt," said Dwyer.

Dwyer created the advisory committee — made up of six Indigenous women and two-spirited individuals — in 2019, as the police organization worked toward its reconciliation strategy. It is the first and only Indigenous women's advisory committee for the RCMP, she said, noting she'd like to one day see a national counterpart.

The Kamsack RCMP officers presented Isabella Kulak with gifts from Ottawa. Dwyer said it was exciting because she didn't even know what was inside the box. (S/Sgt. Noel Allard/RCMP )

Isabella was presented with an RCMP ribbon skirt made by Dwyer, along with gifts from Ottawa that included ribbons and a blanket. She was also invited to attend the committee's next meeting.

"Just the excitement in her eyes when she opened that box was just like, wow — because I didn't even know what was in the box. So it was nice," said Dwyer.

The meeting was originally going to include officers from Ottawa, but was adjusted due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Latest in a string of accomplishments

Isabella called the meeting a highlight of the past six months, in the wake of that initial school incident that kicked off a wave of change.

In that time, she has been nominated for a "Strength of Our Women Award" in the youth category, which celebrates the contributions of Saskatchewan First Nations women; appeared on the cover of Kci-Niwesq, the Native Women's Association of Canada magazine; and Sen. Mary Jane McCallum put forward a bill in the Senate to establish Jan. 4 as "National Ribbon Skirt Day."

Isabella, 10, shows off an RCMP blanket she was gifted while her mother Lana and four-year-old sister Shania look on. (S/Sgt. Noel Allard/RCMP)

Isabella has also been gifted more than 20 skirts and a number of ribbons, although she is still in need of a sewing machine to craft them into a skirt of her own making.

"Her story has gone so far and wide that it just touches my heart," said Lana Kulak, Isabella's mother.

Photographer Tracy Kerestesh shot Isabella Kulak for the cover of a recent edition of Kci-Niwesq magazine. (Tracy Kerestesh/Facebook)

Dwyer also asked Isabella to design a pin that she will give to RCMP officers to wear. "I want to use it as an education tool for the employees and the RCMP in this province to share with them her story," she said.

Isabella said the request made her "happy and excited." She drew her mother, father and herself, along with a ribbon skirt.

Meaning behind the skirt

Many people still don't know what the ribbon skirt represents, said Dwyer, noting she herself only learned of the garment after connecting with her Indigenous heritage about 10 years ago. Now, she said, she has dedicated herself to sharing her culture — and wants to use Isabella's story as one way to do that.

Ribbon skirts are traditionally worn by women and girls for Indigenous ceremonies, but the garments are also used to reflect support for causes. The skirt holds strength, sacredness and heritage within its seams.

Dwyer presents Isabella with a ribbon skirt that is worn by her Indigenous women advisory committee, marking Isabella as an honorary member. (S/Sgt. Noel Allard/RCMP)

The handmade skirts would have originally been made from hide and decorated with hand-collected materials. But as animal hides became scarce due to colonialism, women adapted and used ribbon and fabric they received through trade with settlers.

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.

Isabella says if she could give one piece of advice to kids her age, it would be to 'be proud and don't let people bring you down.' (Judy Pelly/Facebook)

'Source of pride'

Ribbon skirts don't become sacred until they're blessed by ceremony, explained Judy Pelly, a knowledge keeper, member of the Saskatchewan RCMP Indigenous Women's advisory committee and Isabella's great-aunt.

Pelly said she has seen more people wearing their ribbon skirts than ever before, noting that she feels they can be worn outside of ceremony as a symbol of womanhood and identity.

Knowledge keeper Judy Pelly said she has seen more women wearing ribbon skirts as fashion statements or statements of their Indigeneity. (Submitted)

"It's become a source of pride and resiliency; being proud to be an Indigenous woman," she said.

"It's so heartwarming to see that people are not afraid. And I think that, with Isabella, she's really opened the eyes. A catalyst for change."

Artist Rachel Manichoose, a member of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, made her first ribbon skirt four years ago. She said the skirts and their ceremony have helped her on her personal healing journey. 

"When I do it, I have to be in good spirit, good mind, good body — like in all aspects of myself. I treat it as a ceremony myself. And I treat it as a sacred art form for me to share my healing with others, but most importantly, with myself and creator," said Manichoose.

She said she proudly wears her skirts out in public, treating them as if they are animate.

"I treat them as if they have a spirit. They hold medicine. It's a way for me to connect with Mother Earth. It's a way for me to connect with my Indigeneity. It's a way for me to honour that part of me that I finally got to know and finally got to reveal." 

'In the right direction'

While the RCMP is looking into developing a national ribbon skirt for its members, Dwyer said officers know when to wear their own skirts over their uniforms at cultural ceremonies.

It isn't a quick process to add the traditional skirts to the Mountie uniform, she said, because it will need to be consistent.

"I can't say, 'Yes, it's going to happen.' But I feel positive that we are in the right direction there," Dwyer said. 

"It acknowledges our place as Indigenous people in this organization," she added. "It's accepting us and that part of our culture. It's accepting all of us — the culture that goes with that. We've accepted the braids, so what about the other parts of the ceremony that make Indigenous people?"

Lana and Chris Kulak stand with two of their seven daughters, four-year-old Shania and 10-year-old Isabella, who is holding up the skirt made by Dwyer. (Inspector Honey Dwyer/Facebook)

In a statement, RCMP National Headquarters confirmed the ribbon skirt is being considered for the RCMP ceremonial uniform, but that consultations with Indigenous members need to take place to provide advice on the appropriate use of the item.

Isabella's father, Chris Kulak, said that if the RCMP was to officially recognize the ribbon skirt, it would show that the organization is making strides to change, especially in light of the Kamloops discovery.

"I think that it shows a recognition of the suffering and the systemic racism that has existed and continues to exist," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samanda Brace

Current Affairs Associate Producer

Samanda Brace is a Current Affairs Associate Producer where she gathers stories mainly for CBC radio's The Morning Edition. She got her start at CBC in 2014 as an intern in the Regina newsroom. Get in touch with her by emailing samanda.brace@cbc.ca

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