Why We Wear Ribbons

Secretary Deb Haaland wore a ribbon skirt designed by Agnes Woodward (Plains Cree) to her ceremonial swearing-in. (Photo by Tami Heilemann, Department of the Interior. Shared from Native News Online.)

Over the years, I have witnessed many arguments within my family about the nature of culture, including what regalia or customs are more “traditional,” and who has more authority to dictate which customs are more traditional. As a young woman, I challenged my aunt about the style of regalia for our festival and powwow, since it didn’t make sense to me that using satin ribbon was considered more traditional than some other variation for decorating a shawl. “But culture can change,” I argued. “Just because this is what we did in the 1800s, doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it.” In the end, of course, I relented to my elder. Over time, however, I’ve remained curious about the history of ribbonwork, and how it has become such a central aspect of our traditional culture.

In Ribbonwork of The Great Lakes Indians: The Material of Acculturation, scholar Rachel Karina Pannabecker takes an in-depth look at what we know about the introduction of ribbon and cloth to the Great Lakes tribes (including my own people, the Bodewadmi/Potawatomi), first by French traders, and then by British and American traders and government agents. We first see evidence of ribbons being utilized in trade and as gifts in the mid-1700s, and a swift transition from hide-based clothing to trade cloth-based clothing in the ensuing decades. As Pannabecker explains, for the United States government, intent on assimilating Indian people into white culture,

Progress was often evaluated according to dress styles. The number of Indians adopting “citizen” dress (Euro-American clothing) rather than retaining the “blanket” was recorded by government agents, missionaries, and travelers as an index of civilization. Changes in material culture, because of their visible nature, are frequently cited as evidence of acculturation (Pannabecker, 1986, p. 95).

For the Great Lakes tribes, however, the utilization of ribbons, glass beads, and other imported materials introduced new ways to adorn ourselves. In Pannabecker’s research, she outlines how Native women developed an entirely new way of working with ribbons, creating the layered applique patterns we now call ribbonwork. The use of Great Lakes ribbonwork was not based on European quilting or taught by French nuns, but was rooted in the creativity and ingenuity of Indigenous women. In a fairly short amount of time, our ancestors utilized new resources to create beautiful and unique artforms that were an expression of their culture and aesthetics. Because of the mechanisms of cultural diffusion, the art and practice of ribbonwork was adopted by many other tribes, especially after the Indian removals of the mid-19th century (Pannabecker, 1986, pp. 226-227).

While it’s impossible to summarize the body of research that’s gone into understanding ribbonwork’s integration into Native culture in a short post, I am enthralled by learning more about how imported trade goods became so well integrated into modern Native culture. As we think about and work toward cultural sovereignty, perhaps one aspect to consider is how both our ancestors and we ourselves adapt our experiences and make them uniquely ours—and wear those ribbon skirts proudly.

What are the stories in your family about ribbons? How do you see the relationship between cultural sovereignty and contemporary materials? Leave a comment!

Mickki Garrity is a student at Northwest Indian College.


Kunze, J. (2021, March 19). Meet the Seamstress Who Designed Deb Haaland’s Ribbon Skirt for Swearing-In Ceremony. Native News Online. Retrieved at https://www.nativenewsonline.net/currents/meet-the-seamstress-who-designed-deb-haaland-s-ribbon-skirt-for-swearing-in-ceremony

Pannabecker, R.K. (1986). Ribbonwork of The Great Lakes Indians: The Material of Acculturation (Doctoral dissertation). The Ohio State University, Columbus.

Leave a Reply