For Isabella Kulak, marking National Ribbon Skirt Day means wearing clothing that represents who you are.
A public outpouring that followed her decision to wear a ribbon skirt to school a little more than two years ago led Parliament to designate Jan. 4 as a day for Canadians to learn more about Indigenous identity and culture.
“We invite everyone to wear their clothing and represent the same message for them to wear something that shows the world who they are,” Kulak, 12, said in an interview Tuesday.
“Honour this day.”
Kulak, a member of the Cote First Nation, had decided in December 2020 to wear a ribbon skirt, a brightly patterned and typically handmade piece of clothing adorned with ribbons, for a formal day at her school in rural Saskatchewan.
Indigenous women wear ribbon skirts as a show of pride and for cultural events. Wearing one makes Kulak “feel proud and strong,” she said Tuesday — “happy and resilient.”
But at the time,Kulak’s family said a staff member at her school remarked that the garment wasn’t considered formal enough.
The school division apologized, saying it needed to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism within its own walls and in the province, which is home to many First Nations.
Kulak’s story sparked a movement of Indigenous women posting photos of themselves donning their own ribbon skirts, and led to calls for a national day to be created.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those who spoke in support of Kulak. At the time, her family said that many people also sent her ribbon skirts.
More than two years later, her mother, Lana, said the family is still in “disbelief” about all that has happened.
She said she believes her daughter’s story resonated because people put themselves in a little girl’s shoes and decided that enough is enough.
“They can remember one time it happened to them when they were little and they didn’t think anything of it. As for myself, it happened one too many times. And I just got used to it,” she said.
“Everybody put their foot down … and it kind of just woke the world.”
In November 2021, Manitoba Sen. Mary Jane McCallum introduced a bill recognizing Jan. 4 as a National Ribbon Skirt Day.
The date was chosen because Jan. 4, 2021 had marked Kulak’s first day back at her school after the incident. She was walked to the building by relatives wearing ribbon skirts and welcomed into the school with drumming.
The bill, whose preamble acknowledges the ribbon skirt as “a centuries-old spiritual symbol of womanhood, identity, adaptation and survival,” passed in the Senate last May, then in the House of Commons in December.
Kulak, now 12, said she plans to mark the occasion on Wednesday with a celebration at her home nation, which is planning an event.
The day before, she still hadn’t chosen with skirt she planned to wear. “I’m really excited.”
Her mother said they want Jan. 4 to be an inclusive day.
“We understand not everybody owns a ribbon skirt or wears a ribbon skirt, but (they can) wear something with pride that represents who they are.”
—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press