'Catalyst for a movement': People around the world don ribbon skirts after Sask. girl shamed for wearing hers

A 10-year-old Saskatchewan girl's life has been brightened by the colourful ribbon skirts of women across the globe after she was shamed for wearing her own.

People from as far as Germany and Puerto Rico have shown support for 10-year-old Cote First Nation girl

Isabella Kulak proudly wears the ribbon skirt her aunt made for her. The 10-year-old Saskatchewan girl was told by an educational assistant at her school that the traditional Indigenous skirt was not fit for the school's formal day. (Judy Pelly/Facebook)

A 10-year-old Saskatchewan girl's life has been brightened by the colourful ribbon skirts of women across the globe after she was shamed for wearing her own.

Isabella Kulak, a member of Cote First Nation in eastern Saskatchewan, decided to wear her ribbon skirt to her school in Kamsack for a "formal day" in December. 

"It's black with lots of white flowers and a blue, green and black ribbon on it. I like that my auntie Farrah made it for me and it fits me really well," Kulak said Monday in an interview with CBC News.

The traditional Indigenous clothing that Isabella and her sister wore represents strength, womanhood and identity, but her pride was stripped from her when an educational assistant at Kamsack Comprehensive Institute compared her clothing to that of another girl.

Chris Kulak, Isabella's father, says he could tell something was wrong when his daughter got home from school.

He says the educational assistant told the Grade 5 student that her mismatched skirt and shirt weren't fit for formal day. The assistant said Isabella should have worn an outfit similar to that of another student, who was wearing a store-bought dress.

Isabella's father, Chris Kulak, pictured with his wife, Lana, and six of their daughters, said the family found the assistant's comments offensive given the ties to Indigenous heritage and culture the skirt has. (Judy Pelly/Facebook)

"We found that very offensive, especially with the culture that's intertwined with the ribbon skirt and the sacredness behind it for Native women and for many women who participate in the skirt making and identify that as part of their heritage," Chris Kulak said Tuesday in an interview with CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

"She was shamed for her traditional wear."

Ribbon skirts are traditionally worn for Indigenous ceremonies by women and girls, but the garments are also used to reflect support for causes such as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 

The handmade skirts pay homage to the teepee and would have been originally made from hide and decorated with hand-collected materials. As animal hides became scarce, women adapted and used ribbon and fabric they had traded with settlers.

Indigenous men similarly wear ribbon shirts.

The skirt has a different meaning for each person who wears it, 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.

10-year old girl shamed by school staff member after wearing a traditional ribbon dress

2 years ago
Duration 2:24
A 10-year old girl has become a source of inspiration for Indigenous women across Canada and even around the world. Isabella Kulak was shamed by a school staff member after wearing a traditional ribbon dress but now she's pretty proud of what's come from that experience.

Ribbon skirt support

Details of Isabella's experience, which has been confirmed by a Good Spirit School Division investigation, were posted on Facebook by Isabella's aunt.

For weeks now, people from across Canada and from as far as Germany and Puerto Rico have been sharing photos and videos of themselves wearing their own ribbon skirts or shirts to show support for Isabella.

"She was a catalyst for a movement that had been waiting to come to the surface for a long time," said Chris. "We are overwhelmed with the positivity on Facebook."

After details of Isabella's experience were posted on Facebook, people began sharing their own ribbon skirt photos. Here, Jin Shirt and Melodie Henry from Calgary stand in their ribbon skirts. (Jin Shirt/Facebook)

Chris, who doesn't use Facebook himself, said the reaction online has turned the negative experience into a positive one for the Kulak family.

"I want to say thank you to all those people for their positive messages. That's how we help each other heal, is through positivity," he said.

Cherie Snow from Virginia Beach, Va., wears her ribbon skirt in support of Isabella. (Cherie Snow/Facebook)

A retired RCMP officer from Germany who once worked in Kamsack sent Isabella $100 after hearing her story, wishing her a merry Christmas. Even actor Nathaniel Arcand gave a shout-out.

"An actor from the … [TV show] my dad likes, North of 60, he said a couple things to me, that they're proud of me," said Isabella. "It's really cool to have an actor do that."

A group poses in their skirts in Pukatawagan, Man. (Suntana Alcorn/Facebook)

March to school

On Monday, the first day back to school after the holidays, a march was held to walk Isabella to school, culminating in a ceremony.

Women wore their ribbon skirts, men wore their ribbon shirts, a drum group performed, and chiefs from surrounding First Nations attended.

Ribbon skirt maker Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote, right, her daughter Heather Ketchemonia, second from left, and her mother, Stella Ketchemonia, stand in front of the Kamsack school with Isabella at a march Monday in support of the 10-year-old. (Submitted by Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote)

The Good Spirit School Division said the comment was problematic, apologized to the family and met with Chief of Cote First Nation George Peter Cote.

"Chief George, the education council from Cote First Nation and the young lady's family have been most gracious, understanding that a mistake was made, offering support, offering advice and forgiveness," said Quintin Robertson, director of education and CEO of the Good Spirit School Division. 

"And I don't want to squander that. I don't want to take that for granted."

Robertson said the division wants to do better in terms of reconciliation.

Chris said he doesn't want to see the educational assistant fired and hopes this can be learning moment.

Powerful symbol

As for Isabella, she said she was happy to see her cousins, kokums and friends come to support her.

Chris said Isabella is learning Saulteaux and has enjoyed learning how to say "sister" or "little one" in different languages, and writes each pronunciation down in a book.

"It's been a little bit of a roller-coaster for her. She's a quiet little girl that likes to learn and likes to play with her friends, and she realizes that she has a powerful voice even though she doesn't feel so big and mighty," said Chris.

"I told her that lots of people are listening and watching. She's been chosen by her people to speak for them. And it's a big responsibility for a 10-year-old girl, but she's rolling with the punches and she's absorbing it all very well."

Chris Kulak, in red, with his daughters in front of Kamsack Comprehensive Institute, where Isabella attends Grade 5, after the Monday march. (Submitted by Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote)

The show of affection and pride for Isabella and ribbon skirts continues online.

Chris said the social media movement has been empowering and inspiring to Isabella and his other six daughters.

"All these people reaching out from all these different bands and areas of the world, just shows her how many aunties and sisters, kokums, she has all around the world that literally feel her pain, in terms of the shaming, and definitely share her pride in the garment," said Chris.

"So she's learned a lot and she's learned that she has a great nation behind her."

Isabella sits among ribbon skirts. (Travis Pelly/Facebook)


Samanda Brace

Current Affairs Associate Producer

Samanda Brace (she/her) is a Current Affairs Associate Producer where she gathers stories mainly for CBC radio's The Morning Edition. She has been with CBC Saskatchewan since 2014.

With files from Theresa Kliem and Janani Whitfield