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Mi’kmaw women celebrate National Ribbon Skirt Day as a day of empowerment

Some Mi’kmaw women will mark National Ribbon Skirt Day by encouraging children to take pride in and wear cultural items like ribbon skirts.  

Thursday is National Ribbon Skirt Day, a day to encourage Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQ people to wear their traditional regalia. 

Haley Bernard, principal of Pictou Landing First Nation School, 135 kilometres northeast of Halifax, said the school will have a display case telling the story of Isabella Kulak, who inspired the day, and provide staff with a short video about ribbon skirts.

“I really want my kids to be proud of who they are wherever they go, so when they leave our school, I want them to know and feel comfortable being Mi’kmaw, being a L’nu,” said Bernard, who is L’nu from Pictou Landing First Nation.

L’nu is the Mi’kmaw word for Indigenous.

Kulak attended a “formal day” in December 2020 at her school in Kamsack, Sask., in a ribbon skirt, and a school staff member told her she should have worn something more formal. Kulak’s dad told CBC News she felt shame after the incident.

The school district later apologized to the family and to the Cote First Nation for the remark.

Kulak’s story sparked an outcry and global support and on the first day back to school after the holidays — Jan. 4, 2021 —  a march was held to walk Isabella to school, with people wearing their ribbon skirts and ribbon shirts.

A bill was passed by Parliament in December 2022 to recognize Jan. 4 as National Ribbon Skirt Day.

Girls move around the school auditorium in brightly coloured dresses with loose ribbons and tassels.
Children wearing regalia like ribbon skirts learn to dance the ko’jua, a Mi’kmaw traditional dance, at a mawi’omi in Lennox Island First Nation on Prince Edward Island in December. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

Bernard said she keeps a ribbon skirt closet of four extra skirts in case students don’t have one to wear. In the last couple years, the school has provided ribbon skirts and shirts to over 30 students. 

Bernard said she also encourages staff to wear their regalia.

“I think when they see adults wearing it, ‘They’re like, hey, I want that,'” said Bernard. 

Rebecca LaBillois from Ugpi’ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation), about 250 kilometres north of Moncton, is co-ordinating National Ribbon Skirt Day celebrations in her community. 

They’re planning to have drumming, medicine bag making, ceremony, colouring and lessons on ribbon skirts and the matriarch circle. 

An Indigenous woman wearing a ribbon skirt and an eagle wing.
Rebecca LaBillois is helping to organize National Ribbon Skirt Day celebrations in Ugpi’ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation). (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

 For LaBillois, a ribbon skirt symbolizes empowerment and the responsibility women have.

“It has both a political and spiritual significance,” said LaBillois, culture and language co-ordinator for the Eel River Bar education department.

“When you see those ribbon skirts that people are wearing, that means we’re still here. Look at us, look at our beautiful nation.”

She said she was moved by Kulak’s story because she has two granddaughters and wants them to always be proud of who they are.

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