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Sewing Ojibwe ribbon skirts in Onigamiising

Eastman Johnson painting of Minnehaha, the heroine in "The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Here in Onigamiising, the Indian Education program staff and Parent Committee recently hosted get-togethers in which girls and women sewed ribbon skirts. Because I enjoy sewing, my daughter invited me to join the group.

The skirt-sewing gatherings began with socializing and then a little explanation about ribbon skirts. Edye Howes, the coordinator of the ISD 709 Indian Education Program, brought in some of her own pretty skirts as examples.

Then we were ready to go! Some of us brought our own sewing machines. Most of the skirts were made by young teenage girls, who were fascinated with the colors, patterns and ribbons. Although the basic design of the skirt was pretty simple, there was quite a bit of work to putting everything together. Those of us with experience were happy to help and share what we knew. The room became a very busy place. There were people working on all different stages of sewing their skirts, admiring each other's work and chatting.

I worked with a young lady whose mother and grandmother I have known for some years. She chose a blue-green patterned fabric and then ribbons, some wide and some narrow, in blue-green and shades of purple. I was impressed by how carefully she measured, cut and placed the ribbons in stripes, comparing different arrangements of color and size. When we had stitched much of the skirt together, she held it against herself to see how it would look when we added the waist casing and elastic.

She and her mother were both proud and shy when I told her how beautiful she looked. When she wears it, she will remember the skirt-making gathering of women from their early teens to elderhood. When I see her wearing it, I will think of the fun we had and that it was an honor to be part of continuing the tradition to another generation.

Ribbon skirts, dresses and shirts have been around in the Onigamiising area for several hundred years, since the arrival of the fur traders. Before the fur trade, Ojibwe clothing was made of soft, durable hide, stitched together with sinew lacing. Wool blankets and stroud cloth, flower-printed calico, needles and thread were among the many items that were brought here from Europe by the traders for exchange for processed pelts. Because fabric clothing could be made much more quickly and easily than buckskin, and because fabric is made in a variety of colors and prints, Ojibwe people integrated cotton and wool into their clothing, though buckskin remains a part of traditional clothing today. The dresses, skirt and shirts were sometimes decorated with ribbons or collared twill tape.

In the inner stairway at the Depot, on the way to the Ojibwe Room, there is a dress on display from the St. Louis County Historical Society's collections. It is made of dark blue wool, perhaps originally a blanket, with colored tape trim. (That same dress can be seen in the 1857 Eastman Johnson painting "Minnehaha," upstairs in the Ojibwe Gallery.) This dress is from Grand Portage, from the days of the fur trade. It is called a strap dress and is a grandmother to today's ribbon dresses and skirts. The top is folded over to make a sort of ruffle across the chest (many dresses made of blankets had this fold-over, called the "rainbow" because of the stripes); the ruffle and bottom of the skirt are trimmed with colored twill tape.

The dress is a color similar to my ribbon skirt, made in the 1980s. My skirt is cut a little fuller and is a little shorter than the skirts we have been sewing in the Indian Education gatherings (styles do change!), with a pleated waist and matching leggings. The skirt and leggings are trimmed with red ribbons. Perhaps I will bring it along to our next sewing get-together and show it to the girls. I wonder if it will look a little old-fashioned to them and if they will feel a sense of wonder that the skirt, decades older than they are, connects them to generations of Ojibwe women who have sewn and worn this same style of clothing.

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Email her at lgrover@d.umn.edu.

Linda Grover sewing.

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