What can ribbon skirts teach us? This Anishinaabe seamstress explains

All of Felicia Huff's skirts are unique. They're sold across southwestern Ontario for ceremonies, funerals and other special occasions.  (Felicia Huff - image credit)
All of Felicia Huff's skirts are unique. They're sold across southwestern Ontario for ceremonies, funerals and other special occasions. (Felicia Huff - image credit)

One of southwestern Ontario's most well-known ribbon skirt makers is celebrating the first-ever day Wednesday by marking her artwork as an important step that could encourage more Indigenous people to embrace their traditions and celebrate their history.

Felicia Huff from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation makes and runs workshops to teach others about ribbon skirts.

"It meant a lot to me to hear that it was formally recognized. For me, it's saying to anyone who is unsure, that this is yours and it's always been yours."

National Ribbon Skirt Day will be recognized every Jan, 4., inspired by 10-year-old Isabella Kulak from Saskatchewan. She was shamed for wearing her ribbon skirt at school in 2020 when school staff told her the skirt was not considered formal wear.

Huff started sewing ribbon skirts seven years ago when her son, a sundancer, needed giveaway prizes. At the time, she didn't have a sewing machine and knew nothing about their significance.

Felicia Huff
Felicia Huff

Since then, Huff has made more than 700 skirts, many specially commissioned for ceremonies, she said.

"I share in my workshops that the skirt is like our armour. It's like our tool," Huff said. "When we wear that skirt, we're in a safe space. We're in our own space. And as we walk, that skirt pushes things in and out of the way that need to or not need to be there for us."

The ribbons that circle the skirts symbolize the connectedness and circular nature of life, she added.

"Everything connects, everything goes around, so that's one part of that," Huff said. Ribbon skirts have different meanings for each person who wears one.

In the 1800s, some Indigenous ceremonies — and the clothing and ceremonial items associated with them — were banned by the Canadian government under the terms of what was known as the Potlatch Law. Ceremonies were illegal until 1951.

Huff said she recalls being at a ceremony years ago when an airplane flew over and an elder pointed out that at one time, it could have meant arrest for everyone participating.

"The government has taken so much away from us. So this [National Ribbon Skirt Day] is one of those moments when we can take it back. It's small but it says to anyone who unsure, that you deserve this," Huff said.

She credits her elders for sharing their teachings about ribbon skirts, giving her a foundation that she passes on to others taking part in workshops or at ceremonies.

For example, before she even starts sewing, Huff smudges to put her heart and mind in the right place, she said.

"We don't know where those skirts are going to go or what kind of healing the wearer will need or how many people they'll touch. Every one of those teachings is a foundation for what I think is very important."

Felicia Huff
Felicia Huff