Canada is marking the first National Ribbon Skirt Day on Wednesday, an event inspired by a young Saskatchewan girl who was shamed for wearing one to school several years ago.
Isabella Kulak, a member of the Cote First Nation about 270 kilometres east of Regina, wore a ribbon skirt to her rural school in December 2020 when she was 10 years old.
The colourful garment is worn by Indigenous women at cultural events and as a show of pride. When Kulak wore hers as part of a school formal day, her family said a staff member told her the outfit wasn’t considered formal enough, leaving the little girl feeling dejected.
The school division later apologized, but her story sparked an online movement as Indigenous women shared photos of themselves wearing ribbon skirts as a way to honour their identity — a reaction that surprised even Kulak’s family.
Calls for a national day to commemorate ribbon skirts began not longer after.
Manitoba Sen. Mary Jane McCallum’s bill to recognize the day passed in Parliament late last year. It’s being marked on Jan. 4, which was the date in 2021 that Kulak returned to class, accompanied by drumming and relatives wearing their own ribbon skirts.
Kulak, who is now in Grade 7, said she wants people to mark the occasion by wearing something that shows they are proud of who they are, whether that is a ribbon skirt or not.
“Honour this day,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m really excited.”
Her mother, Lana, said they planned to attend a celebration on her daughter’s home nation on Wednesday.
“Isabella’s story shone a light on the enduring injustices, racism, and discrimination faced by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada every day, and on the importance of the role we all have to play in making sure that what happened never happens again to anyone in Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement Wednesday.
“I invite everyone to learn from Indigenous Peoples about their cultures and histories — from languages to traditional ceremonies and regalia to ancestral ties to the land.”
Other Indigenous leaders have called on Canadians to do the same, including the Southern Chiefs’ Organization in Manitoba.
In a statement Wednesday, Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said while many First Nations people are very familiar with the significance of the ribbon skirt, Kulak’s experience demonstrates there is more learning to do.
“Today we honour young Isabella Kulak for her courage and resolve,” he said. “We lift up all our relations who do what they can to raise awareness of our cultures, along with combating racism and discrimination.”
The Assembly of First Nations, an advocacy organization representing more than 600 First Nations communities across Canada, also said it stood with Kulak and others celebrating First Nations heritage on Wednesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2023.