IIt was a dress that caused an avalanche of headlines. Standing in front of Vice President Kamala Harris with her right hand raised, Deb Haaland was sworn in last week as secretary of the interior dressed in a long skirt with rainbow ribbons adorned with a corn stalk, butterflies and stars.
The skirt, a traditional indigenous garment with a variety of meanings that is often grounded in honoring community heritage and symbolizing empowerment, overshadowed everything around her in Eisenhower’s executive office building during her swearing-in as first secretary. of Indigenous Cabinet in United States History.
But there is also a story behind the dress: one of empowerment and survival of a community and also of its designer. The garment was made as a “celebration style skirt” in recognition of Haaland’s nomination, explained its creator, Agnes Woodward, who is Plains Cree of Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada.
The 38-year-old spent weeks creating the signature garment for her North Dakota home. While the colors of the rainbow are meant to represent all people and the pair of dark blue butterflies serve to deliver an uplifting message, the corn stalk is a symbol of Haaland’s enrolled membership in the Town of Laguna, a tribe in New Mexico, Woodward explained.
The glittering four-pointed stars, however, were a distinctive addition from Woodward himself. She said she likes to present them in all her ribbed skirts as a tribute to the stories she grew up with about the stars who are relatives who look down on them and to signify the connection that the natives feel “with everything around us; that everything has a purpose; that everything that was created by the creator has a purpose ”.
Woodward, who also works as an advocate for victims of violence in the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, began making ribbed skirts around 2010, when she was attending native ceremonies with her husband and her and their daughters, who are now 13 and nine years. I needed to use them.
But she quickly learned that the act of creating such an important symbol of matriarchal empowerment that tells stories of survival, resilience and holiness, also helped with her own healing and restoring her pride as a native woman.
“A lot of women would email me and say, ‘This is my life story, can you put that on a skirt? or ‘This is my native name, can you put it on a skirt?’ Or ‘I’m a survivor of all this and I need to heal, I’ve never had a ribbon skirt,’ ”she told The Guardian. “And so while I have had those conversations, it has given me a lot of empowerment for myself, but also for all the women that I have connected with.”
Woodward explained that his father survived residential school and his mother the “scoop of the 1960s,” which involved thousands of indigenous children who were separated from their families in Canada and placed in foster care, and the year they were born. his aunt was murdered. And then as a child growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, she also experienced a wide range of racism, including the so-called “dirty Indian.”
One case in which she was about eight years old and had to escape a domestic violence situation with her mother in the middle of the night is especially disturbing. She said she remembers that they were both barefoot, dressed only in nightgowns and running down a dark alley to get to a gas station and ask for help. But instead of being greeted with concern, she recalls that the employee looked at them in disgust, before reluctantly calling the police.
“I cannot explain how as a child you know that they look at you with disgust because you are a native, not for any other reason than because you are a native and this person does not like natives.” she said.
Woodward said her shame at being a native meant her parents had to force her to wear ribbon skirts as a child. So when she became an adult and made the active decision to start not only wearing the skirts again, but sewing them, she said it helped her heal and regain who she is as an indigenous woman.
Once she started posting pictures of her creations on Snapchat, community members started reaching out to her requesting custom orders, and things just grew from there. Today, she has made hundreds of skirts, including some that help draw attention to the Movement Women, Girls and Two Missing and Murdered Indigenous Spirits (MMIWG2), and sells them through her. organization, ReeCreeations.
Two of her MMIWG2 skirts had already reached the floor of the United States Congress as part of the discussions surrounding the Savanna Act, a bill dedicated to Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Native American woman who was murdered in 2017 in North Dakota. So when she connected with Haaland and sent him a draft of her design, it seemed natural that her skirt would be the right fit for this occasion.
Woodward said Haaland wearing the skirt designed by someone from all over northern Saskatchewan while taking office makes it clear to him that “she still represents us all as a people.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism