Ribbon skirts return to Fort Smith

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When Fort Smith Elder Maggie Kurzewski passed away last May, Brenda Chalifoux realized she would no longer see ribbon dresses around town.

“Maggie used to wear a ribbon dress at every celebration, like the first of July, feasts, or Aboriginal day,” she said.

After learning from her family that ribbon skirts were a part of the community’s culture, Chalifoux decided to host a ribbon skirt workshop to bring the colourful clothing back.

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She contacted Priscilla Lepine, Kurzewski’s daughter, to ask if she wanted to co-host the workshop. Since they started, last June, the two have helped more than 30 women sew their own skirts on Saturday evenings at Uncle Gabe's Friendship Centre.

“For a lot of the women who are in Fort Smith … when we go into ceremony, typically, we wear a scarf rather than a skirt,” said Chalifoux.

But after talking to her great aunt, Anna Coleman, Chalifoux learned women in her community had in the past worn solid or calico skirts with a broad band of velvet around the bottom.

“And so there were ribbon skirts here before, just not like the ribbon skirts that we made this year," she said.

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While previously women made ribbon skirts or dresses with whatever material was available, this group has access to a variety of ribbons and materials – so they were able to design skirts that had a personal significance.

“Many of them like to use the colours of the medicine wheel,” Chalifoux said.

“The meanings are different for everybody. And there's no rule saying it must be like this or like that."

While the ribbon skirts are traditional to local Dene and Métis cultures, Lepine said non-Indigenous and Inuit participants also joined in.

“People loved going through the process of making the skirt and picking out a material that spoke to them,” she said.

“A lot of thought went into what the meaning of the ribbon was going to be.

“The whole process of making it created a lot of discussion, excitement, and dialogue about the past, Elders, political events, and colonization.

“Each stitch is like a prayer,” she continued, adding that some participants felt sewing a ribbon skirt was a healing activity.

Many of the women who have sewn skirts over the past year met this past Sunday to celebrate over tea.

Chalifoux and Lepine expect the popularity of their workshops to continue to grow as others see the skirts around town.

“People want to have them for whatever ceremony or meeting they're involved in where it would be appropriate to wear that,” said Chalifoux.

On average, it takes people three to four weeks to complete a skirt. Newcomers are trickling into the friendship centre all of the time, the two said.

Chalifoux and Lepine plan to be there every Saturday night, ready to welcome and mentor new sewers.

And if they have any spare time, they want to make a ribbon dress by hand, similar to the one Lepine’s mom wore around Fort Smith.