'We are not just black and white pictures of the past': #KokumScarfCampaign empowers, educates

The word "kokum," Cree for grandmother, has different associations for different Indigenous women. An ongoing social media movement, the #KokumScarfCampaign, asked some of them to share their thoughts.

'Kokum scarf' more than just a fashion statement for Indigenous women

"Be a matriarch. Be good medicine." - Tala Tootoosis (right) with Shalaine Bouvier for the Kokum Scarf Campaign (Tala Tootoosis/Facebook )

The word "kokum," Cree for grandmother, has different associations for different Indigenous women. An ongoing social media movement, the #KokumScarfCampaign, asked some of them to share their thoughts. 

"That kokum, that power, the power to scold. That power to love you, that power to be strong. That power to wake up at 6 a.m. and start cutting up deer meat and making bannock and cleaning the house — and she's 85," said Tala Tootoosis, a Nakota Sioux, Onkwehonkwe and Plains Cree woman from Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

Mesa Bitternose says she is wearing her ribbon skirt and kokum scarf in honour of MMIW in the Kokum Scarf Campaign. (Becki Bitternose/Facebook )

Tootoosis created the campaign, which asked women to enter pictures of themselves with ribbons skirts and kokum scarves on their face while also wearing a "statement tee" from an Indigenous owned business.

"I’ve conquered my weaknesses through prayer, participating and believing in my tradition," Laua Willians said in her Kokum Scarf Campaign submission. (Laua Willians/Facebook )
"I am raising my children to know who they are as anishinabe and to be proud of who they are as where they come from," said Sher N Asby in her Kokum Scarf Campaign (Sher N Asby/Facebook )

A kokum scarf is a brightly coloured handkerchief that became a popular staple for Indigenous grandmothers. Tootoosis said the scarves have many practical uses.

"My grandmother wore them they're from the trap lines. It was just something they wore to keep their hair back while they chopped wood or skinned an animal. I always seen it as a symbol of strength. My kokum always wore one. I don't think I ever saw her without one," Tootoosis said.

"When you wear it, you're remembering you aren't alone and you're remembering that you come from a long line of really strong women."

Generations of women in Tala Tootoosis family wearing kokum scarves over the years. Pictured here is Tala's mother, grandmother and great grand mother. (Violet Naytowhow/Facebook )

Tootoosis created videos on different ways to wear a kokum scarf and even how to make a ribbon skirt.

"I am learning my language & traditions to pass onto my children," said Snutetkew Manuel in her Kokum Scarf Campaign submission.

Resilience is a key part of the campaign. Every woman that enters a photo is asked what makes her resilient.

Killa Atencio is a Mi'gmaq woman originally from the Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation who currently lives in Halifax. For Atencio, resiliency doesn't always mean having a tough exterior or a hardness toward the world around you. She said she likens her personal resilience to water.

"The campaign it makes me feel proud and it makes me wanna be seen wearing it and and showing off the beauty behind it," said Killa Atencio. (Killa Atencio / Facebook )

"I'm a very soft person and sometimes I feel like that is a burden, but through this campaign and through my own reconnecting to my own spirit, I've come to realize that being soft is strong in a way," Atencio said.

"In my submission, I make a lot of reference to the water and the waves. The water has taught me how to be strong and reclaim my own power. It is soft, but it breaks away stone. Being strong isn't always having your fist in the air: sometimes it's just the words you use and the heart that you have."

Why ask participants about their resilience?

Tootoosis said she feels it's important to "pass on the torch of empowerment."

"If I feel empowered because somebody asked me [about resilience], I think it is important to do the same for other women. If we're talking about it, it becomes common knowledge that we are stronger than our weaknesses," she said.

"I am reclaiming my identity as an anishnawbe woman by learning to speak my Ojibwe language fluently," said Levina Wavey in her Kokum Scarf Campaign submission. (Levina Wavey/Facebook )

When reflecting on the resilience within her own family, Tootoosis talked about the kokums on both sides of her family. She spoke about her late kokum, Nancy who would wake up at 5 a.m. and cut up moose meat and cook boiled potatoes for her.

"When she went down the stairs, she wouldn't let me help her, ever, because she was so solid."

Tootoosis says this campaign reflects the strength of Indigenous women like her kokum Irene, who is 85 years old and still wins dance competitions in her community.

"She still makes jokes and talks openly about her healing and her path and the things she's gone through and encourages me in what I go through," Tootoosis said. 

We are not just survivors.- Killa Atencio

Cheyanne Manatowabi, who is from the Wikwemeikong First Nation, said wearing a kokum scarf is a source of pride.

"Now that I'm older I have a different appreciation for the skirt," said Cheyanna Manitowabi here in her Kokum Scarf Campaign submission. (Cheyanne Manitowabi/Facebook )

"Whenever I go to powwows because I dance jingle, I always put the kokum scarf over my head like the way a kokum would wear it and people would joke around and call me 'kokum.' It actually made me feel good," Manitowabi said.

"When I think of the word kokum I think of kindness and nurturing loving safe space at the same time a little scolding when you really need it."

The campaign closes December 31, 2018. Four winners will receive a variety of prizes including clothes from indigenous owned businesses like Reclaim Your Power. Women will still be able to submit pictures after the contest's end. Tootoosis has plans to make a book.

"My mom made me, but my Kokum raised me!" -Mandee Laliberte, Kokum Scarf Campaign submission (Mandee Laliberte/Facebook )

The campaign is meant to help women to reclaim their identity, celebrate the beauty of being resilient and be seen for who they are.

"We are not just survivors. We are not just black and white pictures of the past. We are living breathing moments that are paving the way of this beautiful connection to our ancestors," said Atencio.


Ntawnis Piapot is Nehiyaw Iskwew from Piapot Cree Nation. She has a journalism degree from the University of Regina, and is a graduate from the INCA Media and Intercultural Leadership Program from the First Nations University. Ntawnis has been a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, APTN National News, CTV Regina, VICE News, J-Source and Eagle Feather News. Email: