As 11-year-old Isabella Kulak picked out her outfit for school Tuesday, she knew her choice of a traditional ribbon skirt would be applauded instead of belittled.
That’s because her school, Kamsack Comprehensive Institute, had declared Jan. 4 ribbon skirt day.
“It’s very exciting. I’m going to wear the one I made. It was super complicated but it was fun,” Kulak, a member of the Cote First Nation, told CBC’s Morning Edition.
Kulak drew international attention last year after she wore a traditional ribbon skirt to a school formal event.
Kulak, then 10 years old, came home upset after an educational assistant shamed her for wearing the skirt, saying it didn’t match her shirt and wasn’t dressy enough for a formal day.
The assistant told Isabella she should have worn a store-bought outfit similar to another student’s.
Ribbon skirts are traditionally worn for Indigenous ceremonies by women and girls, but the garments are also used to show support for causes such as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
On Isabella’s first day back to school after she was belittled for wearing the skirt, a march was held to walk her to class. Women wore ribbon skirts and men wore their ribbon shirts. Chiefs from surrounding First Nations also attended.
That was Jan. 4, 2021.
News of Isabella’s skirt spread worldwide. She received letters and social media posts of support from far flung locales including Germany and Puerto Rico, with people posting pictures of themselves wearing ribbon skirts.
Kulak was also made an honorary member of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous women’s advisory committee to the RCMP and was praised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Senator Mary Jane McCallum also introduced a bill into the senate to make Jan. 4 national ribbon skirt day. The bill has passed second reading.
“When people try to assimilate you, there’s always a process of shame that goes along with it,” McCallum told the Morning Edition.
“I was in residential school for 11 years, so trying to remove my identity from me and make me into someone else that I’m not.”
Kamsack Comprehensive Institute celebrated its first ribbon skirt day on Tuesday, Jan. 4, complete with a smudge ceremony, prayers and a speech by a knowledge keeper.
Chiefs of the Cote and Keeseekoose First Nations attended, alongside the director and superintendant of the Good Spirit School Division.
Isabella, her six sisters, and her parents Lana and Chris Kulak donned hand-made ribbon skirts and a shirt.
Mark Lucas, principal at Kamsack Comprehensive Institute, said he was a little nervous that attendance might be low due to COVID regulations and it being the first day back from the Christmas break.
“I wasn’t sure what the culture or the vibe in the school would feel like, but it’s been really, really positive,” Lucas said.
“It’s actually amazing.”
Since last year, the school has tried to incorporate more awareness and facilitate healing between the staff and First Nations community.
This fall, when Lucas came on as principal, the Kamsack school started offering classes in ribbon skirt making, beading and drumming. One of the teachers is none other than Lana Kulak, Isabella’s mother.
“I’m still a little bit in shock. I’m just sitting back and I’m really overwhelmed with joy, how positive everything is going,” Lana said.
Lucas estimated about 100 people wore ribbon skirts Tuesday. Some were made in the very class Lana taught this past fall.