Ribbon skirts connect Cape Breton First Nation chief to the strength of other Indigenous women

·7 min read

The first female leader of We'koqma'q First Nation is looking forward to a time when COVID-19 restrictions are loosened and her community can come together again.

That's when Annie Bernard-Daisley says she'll wear one of the two ribbon skirts recently custom-made for her.

Ribbon skirts are traditional clothing that represents the sacredness of women in Indigenous cultures around North America. The colourful ribbons along the hemline and applique images are often symbolic and deeply personal for the wearer.

"Something about a ribbon skirt makes you feel empowered, and you're not just wearing a skirt, you're wearing your culture and your traditional beliefs and what we are as Mi'kmaq women. It's an expression of our history, our resilience, and especially when it's made for you about who you are and what you stand for, it just means more than anything," said Bernard-Daisley, who was elected chief in October 2020.

Last month, she and some of the We'koqma'q band office staff watched Deb Haaland make history when she became the first Indigenous secretary of the interior in the United States. For the swearing-in ceremony, Haaland wore a ribbon skirt made by Plains Cree seamstress Agnes Woodward from the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, who now lives in North Dakota.

Bernard-Daisley said there wasn't a dry eye in the building.

"When you see a woman in a position that's traditionally and historically held by men, and you've walked the hard road that it took to get in here ... at that moment it (was) just a pure victory for women all over, and it really hit home," she said.

Bernard-Daisley’s assistant, Emma Lewis, worked closely with Quebec-based seamstress Candia Flynn to create a skirt that reflects the things the chief holds dear: her role as mother to her three daughters, her advocacy work for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and her family roots.

Until recently, when she stepped away to focus on her new job as chief, Bernard-Daisley was the president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association. She first took on the position in 2019, just over a year after her cousin, 22-year-old Cassidy Bernard, was found dead in her home with her unharmed infant twins. Cassidy Bernard's ex-boyfriend and father of her children has been charged in her death and is set to face trial in 2022.

At the time, Bernard-Daisley said the tragedy pushed her to speak up for better supports and services for Indigenous women in the province, something she continues to advocate for in her new role as chief.

HEALING STITCHES

Candia Flynn runs Healing Stitches, a small ribbon skirt business, with her partner Don Barnaby, a Mi’kmaw from Listukuj First Nation in Quebec.

She is from the Hassanamesit Reservation in Grafton, Mass. and now lives and works as a teacher in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal.

It was her work as a teacher that led her to her passion for creating ribbon skirts, a talent she didn't know she had until her school's graduating class was making traditional outfits for their graduation ceremony. She joined them and learned to sew a ribbon skirt from another teacher at the school.

"I really loved how while I was creating, I was connecting, and there were stories in the sewing room and everybody was laughing and sharing and talking and it became this amazing healing session with the students and the teachers and we were all learning together," she said.

That first skirt, with its crooked ribbons and uneven stitches, is hung in her studio as a reminder of how far she's come.

Even from the beginning, she could see the designs in her mind but needed her sewing skills to catch up with her inspiration. It's been five years since she made her first ribbon skirt and in that time she's made skirts for women across Turtle Island (an Indigenous term for North America).

She really honed her skills a few years ago when she gave her Grade 7-8 students a challenge to choose a habit that would make a positive impact on their lives and stick with it for 30 days. She wanted her students to see that she was participating as well so chose to wear a ribbon skirt to school every day for the month.

There was just one problem: she only had two skirts at the time, so she got to work making more as fast as she could, and she said it became a game for her students, wondering which skirt she'd wear that day.

That created an opportunity for Flynn to talk about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, as she dedicated each skirt to a lost sister and took a few minutes each day to acknowledge that person.

The skirts were also deeply personal to Flynn, who is a rape survivor.

"I always felt like part of what happened to me was because of the way I dressed or the way I carried myself, so I always felt like I had to keep myself covered up and I never thought wearing skirts would make me feel beautiful or comfortable in my own skin again," she said.

"I feel like it was very freeing, to be able to wear those (ribbon) skirts in the name of women who are no longer here. It was a way to feel beautiful again and to feel like maybe people were seeing me, but in a way to appreciate my culture or to ask me something about my skirt."

REPRESENTING WOMEN'S STORIES

Flynn says the number of requests she's received from people wanting a skirt made in memory of a missing or murdered loved one, and the stories that came along with those requests were heartbreaking. She and her husband have given many of the skirts away for free, "because it was something (the women) needed," she said.

"I created (a skirt) for a woman who was a victim of sex trafficking, and she shared her story, and she had never really told anyone about those experiences before. She wanted a skirt that reminded her that she was powerful, and she was beautiful, and she survived, and we created that for her," Flynn said.

Sometimes the weight of these stories gets heavy, and Flynn can't always start a project right away or needs to take a break. It took about four months before she could start a skirt for a teen-suicide educator, and she's struggling with a project for someone who has lost a child.

"It's a responsibility because the stories on these skirts are going to be worn by these powerful, beautiful women who are continuing to educate and share with other people, so I want to get it right," she said.

Creating the skirts gives Flynn joy as well, and she's always loved the creative process and bringing her visions to life.

"I get to play around with fabrics and colours and that makes me really happy."

With each new dress, Flynn incorporates pieces of fabric from the other skirts to link the women together. So, when Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley and her community can finally come together, the ribbon skirt she'll be wearing will give her a connection to those other women and their stories.

"My vision when I'm creating (the skirts) is that we're all having each other's energy and support and a part of each other so that we share that strength as women, as matriarchs. I love that idea that we can be kind of unified as strong women."

Ardelle Reynolds, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post