Sioux Roque was overwhelmed with pride on Jan. 4, the first celebration of a now annual National Ribbon Skirt Day in Canada, dedicated to honouring the Indigenous traditional regalia.
As a ribbon skirt maker, owner of Skirts by Sioux, and member of Wahnapitae First Nation, Roque was proud to see the skirts everywhere, her friends and family, from across Canada and even the world, being shared on social media.
It was what she has always dreamed of and the focus of her business: making ribbon skirts for ceremonies, but also, making ribbon skirts an everyday sight, for the office and for formal events.
“I've been trying to kind of change the perspective on skirts and make them more contemporary, but also, to make them more normalized,” said Roque.
Cultural pride wrapped in form and function, her clothing even features the deepest desire of every skirt-wearer: “Every one of my skirts has pockets,” she told Sudbury.com.
But whatever the style, the intention she imbues in her work is the same.
“I’ll smudge myself, smudge my machines, my space, my fabric, everything that I work with and make sure everything is positive and I have good intentions the entire time,” Roque said.
She adds that the intentions - holding only good thoughts and feelings while you work, rather than stress, or worse, something other than your work - are more real to her now that she has seen her skirts on others while at memorial walks or ceremonies.
“On some of the walks that I've been on, I noticed women wearing skirts that I made. That hit me: I thought, I can't be in all these places – marches and walks and advocating and supporting our cause, our people, our voice – but my skirts are there, so I am there, and so are my intentions,” she said.
Colours, fabrics and notions for all of Roque’s work, which also include men’s ribbon shirts, drum bags, dresses, and even curtains, are chosen by the client.
For many, it is the colours of the medicine wheel, black, white, yellow, and red, or simply colours they are drawn to. For others, it is their spirit colours.
Spirit colours are often given at the same time as an individual receives their name and their clan - a tradition for many indigenous communities and nations. Even if someone has not received their spirit colours, Roque said she can usually figure it out. “It’s the colours that you are drawn to, instinctually,” she said.
She didn’t receive her spirit colours until she was 30; she was given red, black and yellow. But already, the ribbon skirt she had already made for herself, and the predominant colours in her closet, could have told her that, she said.
“I love asking kids, what's your favorite color, and they'll tell you because their spirits are naturally drawn to these colors,” said Roque. “And then I love it when they do get their colours and it's the colours that they've told you are their favorite.”
Roque said she met with a mother who wanted a pink dress for her daughter, but the four-year-old girl was not having anything other than yellow.
The little girl's spirit name was Lady Slipper, named for the flower, and not only did Roque apply that to the back of the yellow dress, she added pink to the flower, “just for mom.” Everyone was thrilled.
Roque herself is a mother of two and works as a Jordan's Principle service worker for Kina Gbezhgomi Child & Family Services. She has dedicated her life to helping her community, working exclusively for Indigenous organizations.
Roque learned to sew a decade ago with the senior women at N’Swakamok Native Friendship Centre, where she was working as a life-long caregiver.
It can be hard to learn from a parent. Roque found it difficult to learn from her mother’s style of teaching. But something about the N’Swakamok women brought her peace and happiness while she worked.
“They would lean over your shoulder, ‘You're going to iron that, right?’ and then they hover over your shoulder again, ‘You're gonna measure that, right? Yes, twice,” Roques said with a laugh. “But it was their kindness, their giggles and laughter that really encouraged a safe learning environment and taught me how to sew.”
She has sewn for many from her community and others, and she is open to and has created ribbon skirts for non-Indigenous women, under the right circumstances.
“The women that have come to me have been so respectful, the way they approached me in asking for a skirt was done with kindness,” said Roque. “If you are an advocate or ally, most definitely put a skirt on and join us. I have no problem with that when it is with respect. And the people, the women that have come to me have been nothing but respectful.”
She said as long as the skirt wearing will not be performative, not meant to “jump on the bandwagon” but to truly be an ally and act in solidarity: “then by all means, come stand with me, sister.”
And as she sews and as she teaches, Roque holds the lessons of the grandmothers who taught her close to heart, those of kindness, but also, joy.
“Grandmother teachings show love in learning. I use kindness and humour to create that comfort, play around to create that calmness and safe space. It's okay to make mistakes, that’s the best way to learn.”
You can find more information about Skirts by Sioux on the Facebook page, found here.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.