Leading up to Deb Haaland's swearing-in ceremony as the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in U.S. history, Agnes Woodward had a secret.
Haaland had invited her, a Plains Cree dressmaker from Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, to sew a traditional ribbon skirt for the occasion. Woodward spent weeks creating the garment — a long, blue skirt with rainbow coloured ribbons, applique butterflies, stars, and a cornstalk to represent Haaland's membership with the Laguna Pueblo tribe. But, she didn't tell anyone what she was working on.
“I had so much fear that it wasn't real or it wasn't going to really happen,” she said. “I didn't want to get my hopes up for something so powerful.”
That wariness had come from years of “constant disappointment,” she told Falen Johnson, host of CBC's Unreserved. “That constant feeling of injustice. That constant feeling of feeling defeated.”
Woodward's parents were activists who, she said, spent her childhood fighting to be heard, but “were always shut down.”
Growing up in Saskatchewan, Woodward experienced racism and began to internalize feelings of shame about being Plains Cree. She also developed a complicated relationship with ribbon skirts.
When her parents required that she wear ribbon skirts at powwows and weddings, she would do her best to rebel.
“I used to hate wearing long skirts,” she said.
It wasn't until Woodward became a mother and began to make skirts for her own daughters, that she realized the shame she had carried. She made the conscious decision then to reconnect her children to their cultural teachings, without forcing them to wear traditional attire.
“When we wear a ribbon skirt, it should be because we want to,” she said, “because it empowers us, because it can tell a story, because it connects us. Never because we're forced to.”
So when Woodward heard that Haaland wanted to wear a traditional ribbon skirt, that she would choose to wear a custom-made skirt to represent her Indigeneity at such a symbolic event, Woodward was flooded with mixed emotions. She was deeply honoured to design the skirt, but couldn't believe it would play out as planned until she first saw Haaland walk out in it.
And then she did. Haaland appeared in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on March 18, to be sworn in as U.S. secretary of the interior. There she was, wearing the long, vibrant ribbon skirt.
“It was such an amazing moment,” Woodward said. “I still look at it and just get so excited, and so happy and proud.”
And when the moment was finally realized, when Haaland wore the skirt while being sworn into cabinet, it brought Woodward a new, more assured hopefulness.
“For me, it really was a message of hope,” Woodward said. “To see it, Deb Haaland, being sworn in as the first secretary, in the way that she chose to be sworn in, with her whole family wearing [ribbon] skirts and different traditional regalia, was just amazing. And I think it just really sends a message of hope. …She's in a place that I believe is rightfully any of ours. Any Indigenous person has a right to sit at those positions.”
Interview produced by Sean Vanderklis