Photo: Patty Krawec
5. 27. 2023
Ribbon Skirts and Mutual Aid
For a few brief days in March of this year, a particular skirt by American fashion company Kate Spade New York (KSNY) was all over Native Twitter, along with accusations that KSNY had copied a particular stacked ribbon skirt by Dakota Navajo artist Noah Pino. Kate Spade had done stripes, along with polka dots, for a very long time, and when I first saw the contested striped organza skirt, I immediately recognized her aesthetic. On the other hand, the look and colour palette is similar to a skirt that Pino designed using satin ribbon of varying thicknesses. And Spade’s stripes, like Pino’s, do look like stacked ribbons, which is when the ribbons are sewn side by side to completely cover all or most of the fabric. But this essay isn’t really about the controversy of whether or not Kate Spade New York copied and profited from the work of a Dakota Navajo artist. It’s about ribbon skirts as Indigenous identity and presence, and the complicated history they represent for us.
Innovation and creativity amidst limiting circumstances
First some history. Like most clothing, ribbon skirts are adaptations of style and design that are innovative and rooted in specific histories. Ribbons didn’t become a significant part of our clothing until after the French Revolution, when European fashionistas discarded silk ribbon along with other trappings of the upper classes. Large quantities of these now-unwanted pretties joined the usual trade goods bound for the colonies, where they became objects of exchange with Great Lakes tribes, traded for things that fashionable Europeans did want. The first recorded instance of Indigenous ribbonwork is a Menominee wedding dress from 1802, and paintings from the early 19th century onward document the addition of ribbons and silver along with other decorative touches on the clothing of Indigenous people. There are earlier dresses, strap dresses with removable sleeves: the clothing that the women of the Eastern Woodlands wore before the Europeans imposed their own ideas of how women should dress. These tunics, sleeves, leggings, and hoods – some of which are held in museum collections – were decorated with porcupine quills, dyes, fringe, and shells. Over time, because of various social pressures impacting what was available or interesting, we shifted from hide to textiles, and from quills and shells to beads and ribbon. When I look at these shifts, I see innovation and creativity in the midst of increasingly limited options. More, I see a direct link from pre-contact strap dresses to contemporary ribbon skirts. A direct link, but perhaps not a straight line.
That link was disrupted in the early 20th century, when assimilation progressed more aggressively, and although boy scouts were encouraged to dress up like Indians, those who were called Indians were not. Our cultural practices, religious beliefs, and even our languages were forbidden outside of our communities. Various pass systems prevented adults from leaving our communities, but children…beginning in the late 1800s, our children were taken from our communities and placed first into residential schools and then into foster homes, where they were taught how to dress and act like “good Canadians.” For several generations, these laws and policies attempted to disconnect us from our histories and relationships, they controlled our existence as Indigenous people, but in the ’50s and ’60s something curious happened. Those children, who were now adults, unable or unwilling to return to their reservations, had begun to drift into cities. Over generations, immigrant populations had created urban communities out of a shared desire to assimilate into the culture of their new home. But as we accumulated in these urban spaces, the communities that Indigenous people formed over generations were based in a shared inability or unwillingness to assimilate.
Militant defence of space, community, connection
The Black Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s inspired and often included these urban Indigenous communities in their organizing, and two years after the Black Panther Party formed in Oakland, California, the American Indian Movement (AIM) emerged in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968. Founded by Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Vernon Bellecourt, and Russell Means, AIM built community and confronted the broken promises that the Canadian and US governments never intended to keep. Just north of Minnesota, and about 50 years later, the Idle No More movement arose in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Founded by Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, and Sheelah McLean, Idle No More continued this work of building community and confronting broken promises. In addition to all their political action, both of these movements provoked a return to Indigenous visibility – but not the kind of visibility that Canadians and USians were used to. Visibility on our own terms.
Back in the days of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, Indigenous peoples took whatever visibility was available. The Indigenous people participating knew that they were being used, decorative beasts whose presence sold tickets and thrilled white audiences, but it was the only time that they could wear and do the things that connected them with a past from which they were increasingly disconnected. That changed with AIM and Idle No More. Ribbon skirts, ribbon shirts, and beadwork were part of these resurgences, ways of being visible in urban spaces where we have so often blended in because we are so often blended people. Years ago, I walked with a friend from a late dinner to our hotel room, laughing together about what could possibly be safer than two Indigenous women on Yonge Street in Toronto at midnight. “Hey! Sisters,” a voice called out from a doorway. “Sisters!” We stopped. The ribbons on our skirts had reached out to an Anishinaabe man far from home and tied us together.
The drum circle, with its collective nature, is another important way that we preserve space and connection. While ribboned skirts, shirts, and beadwork let individuals assert belonging to Indigenous community, with drum circles we practice belonging. About eight years ago, a group of women began to gather at the Fort Erie Native Friendship Center to sing and drum. This was intended to be part of a program for young mothers and their children, so the children could see their mothers doing something positive that was rooted in their culture. As often happens with such things, this group evolved and has since become a loosely organized collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous members. I hadn’t thought about this drum group as a site of organizing or mutual aid, but that is what it is now. If theory is what we believe, and praxis is what we do, then our drum group is praxis.
Mutual aid is not charity. People often confuse it for charity; they donate to people or projects, good things happen, and that support gets called mutual aid. This isn’t necessarily bad; I run a foundation that, in part, does precisely this. But mutual aid involves a reciprocity that charity or other kinds of support do not. Mutual aid is the working together to develop ways to meet each other’s needs while organizing against the system that created the need in the first place. That is the praxis of our drum group. We take the teachings and music of our ancestors and communities and translate that into action. Most of the time, that action is simply gathering together week after week, sharing meals and songs and stories and laughter and tears. It is the creation of a space where we can bring our authentic selves – for some of us, perhaps, the only space where we can do that. We adopted non-gendered language to ensure that non-binary members could be authentic: the Strong Water Women became the Strong Water Singers. Ceremonies we organize do not require skirts. And we also practice another important organizing principle: working collectively with people we may not always like or get along with. Communities of mutual aid can and should be communities of care where we work together across differences for a common good. That would be enough…but when you create a space where people can bring their authentic selves and start to give voice to those selves, unexpected things happen.
Out of the fragments
Early on, we began to get requests to sing and perform at events. It’s reconciliation time in Canada, and every organization with a land acknowledgement wants to start their event by having Indigenous women singing and drumming in pretty skirts. Saying yes to many of these events meant we risked participating in the kind of tokenizing that took place in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. But times have changed, and we don’t need those kinds of activities in order to dress or act in ways that connect us with a past with which we’re now increasingly connected. Organizations quickly find out that we may not be the Indians they’re looking for.
Or maybe, for some of these organizations, we are.
It started with an event that played the national anthem, and after Colin Kaepernick encouraged us to embody a different world, we simply couldn’t celebrate a country that relies on the deliberate impoverishment of Black and Indigenous peoples through the ongoing theft of bodies and land via policing and extractive industry. So, as I introduced the drum group, I explained why we had stayed seated. Then, a few weeks later, we were invited to an opening of an art exhibit about water, and when I stood to introduce us, I saw the politicians in the front row. Politicians who were there to celebrate water while less than five kilometers away, a contested development site threatened fragile wetlands. Time and again, those moments of introduction became opportunities to speak truth to power, to remind politicians and other dignitaries that we weren’t their decorative beasts.
Organizations have continued to invite us – and, even better, they’ve paid us – so the drum group’s work has expanded to providing help for our community members in material ways: with rent and groceries, with clean water and other basic needs. Resistance must find such means to respond to the deliberate impoverishment of our communities; it is not enough only to speak truth to power. We became a collective that practices mutual aid: working together to develop ways to meet each other’s needs, while organizing against the system that created the need for that aid in the first place.
We are living the relations that we want to see in the world. And I see that replicated in different ways across Turtle Island or Abya Yala or what are currently the Americas and beyond. I see women, understood in that broad expansive sense of all who carry creative energy, gathering together as we have always done. Building and rebuilding communities of mutual aid.
When I look at ribbon skirts and the drum group I belong to, I see people building communities out of the fragments that colonial society keeps generating, piecing ourselves back together with ribbons and beads, one song at a time. Kate Spade New York and those who buy its wares can have their maybe-it’s-a-knockoff-copycat-organza-striped-skirt-made-of-ticky-tacky, ‘cause they all look just the same. When I look at our communities, I see a field full of wildflowers, each skirt and shirt unique to its wearer, ranging from the very simple to the extraordinarily extra, calling out to others and tying us all together into communities of care and reciprocity.
Through writing and speaking, Patty Krawec (Anishinaabe/Ukranian) explores how we might live differently in the relationships we inherit. She is a co-founder of the Nii’kinaaganaa Foundation, and her book Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future was published in September by Broadleaf Books. Her work centred on Indigenous identity and thought has also been published in Sojourners, Rampant Magazine, Midnight Sun Magazine, Indiginews, Religion News Service, and Broadview Magazine, and on the Yellowhead Institute website. She posts podcasts and essays with some regularity on multiple substacks. You can find her online at daanis.ca and you can find the Strong Water Singers on Instagram @strongwatersingers.