Alyssia Sutherland was 14 years old when she was first introduced to ribbon skirts.
Her mother had just moved her kids about a two-hour drive south, from Peguis First Nation to Winnipeg, and she was feeling lost.
“It was a culture shock because a lot of people were teasing me because they said I have an accent. And I was like, “Okay, so is it bad to be Indigenous?” Sutherland told Global News.
“Eventually, I found an organization called Ka Ni Kanichihk and started going to their programs … that was the first time I (designed) my own ribbon skirt. It made me proud of who I was.”
Since then, ribbon skirts began playing a bigger role in Sutherland’s life. In 2018, she sewed her first one with help from her mother-in-law.
“She asked, ‘Ally, do you have a skirt for ceremonies?’ and I said no. And she’s like, ‘Well, let’s make you one then.'”
Ribbon skirts are a centuries-old Indigenous tradition historically reserved for ceremonies, and they can mean different things to different people and communities.
Considered sacred, ribbon skirts are a symbol of identity, resilience and survival often connecting the wearer to culture and kinship.
“I want ribbon skirts not just for ceremonies. I want ribbon skirts every day,” she said.
“When people look at us, I want to be (seen) as Indigenous … it’s kind of like identity, empowerment, strength and knowing that I’m a warrior.”
The exact history and how-to of ribbon skirts is hard to pin down. Each community, and sometimes even each family passes down a history. For example, the Milwaukee Public Museum said ribbons used in Indigenous ribbon-work were brought by French traders to the Great Lakes region in the 18th century; a Cree woman in B.C. said she needed to heal to be able to wear a ribbon skirt; while another said they should be gifted.
“Some people just wear it in ceremony, some people wear it every day, and there’s no right or wrong way,” Sutherland said.
Skirts are also becoming more and more popular outside of ceremonial settings.
“If you go somewhere in the city, you’ll see one or two ribbon skirts, and that just makes me so proud,” said Sutherland.
“As long as you have a good mindset and a good way of wearing it to reflect that … I’m okay with it (being worn by whoever).”
Peguis First Nation is hosting a fashion show that will showcase some of Sutherland’s designs.
Freshly returned from the Cannes Indigenous Arts and Fashion Festival, she is back in her community to take part in a fashion show put on by community-based organization Pegwasis Manidoo Makoons, highlighting ribbon skirts made by over 40 youth from the community.
Amanda Sinclair is a child development worker with Pegwasis Manidoo Makoons and one of the show’s organizers.
“We feel every girl deserves a ribbon skirt,” said Sinclair. “And we know a lot of people can’t afford a beautiful piece so we thought like, let them make their own so that they can know the value of how much work is put into making a skirt of their own.”
Community members picked out their own material and ribbons, sewed the skirts, and wore them proudly, Sinclair said. They first decided to do a photoshoot and calendar, and eventually landed on the idea of a fashion show called Proud To Be Me.
“It’s a wonderful feeling seeing our youth light up when their skirts are done and they’re all so proud,” said Sinclair.
Tammy McCorrister is one of the youth set to showcase her work. She had never used a sewing machine before, and it took her one day to make her skirt.
“I wanted to make it because I miss my auntie and I chose my favorite colours,” McCorrister said.
Youth like McCorrister are the reason Sutherland is so excited to come back to her community and participate in the fashion show. She said she wants to help youth see their potential.
“I want to give them the opportunity I never had,” she said.
“It was hard growing up in the reserve … and so coming back to the community and being home, seeing a whole different side of my reserve in a healing and beautiful way.”