As more than a dozen women arrived to sew on the final day of the Red Ribbon Skirt and Shirt Project, thousands of sandhill cranes circled over St. Faith’s Anglican Church parking lot. Women shouted and pointed, enjoying the positive sign. It was as if the sandhill cranes were sending a message: “You are doing good work down there.”
After seven weeks of organizing and sewing red ribbon skirts and shirts for May 5, a day commemorating Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), the work was almost done. On May 5, there would be a pipe ceremony and walk from Churchill Square to Beaver Hills House Park. Many of the women were tired, but exuberant about accomplishing their goal of sewing 160 red ribbon skirts and approximately 40 men’s ribbon shirts.
During the pipe ceremony, organizers will give these precious creations to individuals who have tragically lost a loved one.
Jamie Smallboy of Vancouver, founder of Red Sisters Gathering, encouraged Jo Swampy to start a group in Edmonton. Brandi Brazeau, Ashleigh Cardinal, Chastity Moses, Brenda Virta, and Jody Threefingers soon joined Swampy. All of them were committed to making the project a success.
“Red is a colour that those who have passed on, the spirits, can see. When we walk together, the spirits will see their family members wearing red, and know that we are walking in their honour. This is what the Cree Nation believes,” says Brazeau.
While I was interviewing Swampy and Brazeau, it seemed as if the two have known each other forever. Not so, says Brazeau. “We didn’t know each other when we got started, but now we’re friends.”
Swampy, who teaches everything from traditional culture and crafts to safety tickets, nods in agreement. “We are sharing something that affects four out of five Indigenous people. It hits home for all of us. There is a lot of hurt and anguish, but gifting the skirts and shirts to the families brings good medicine into it. It shows that we are thinking of them.”
Moses agrees. “I can’t wait to give these to families who allow us to gift [the items to] them. It may recall the trauma, but it is healing at the same time.”
As the women sewed over the past month, they told stories. “We laughed, talked, and cried,” says Kathy Hamelin. “We shared our stories without fear of being criticized.” Hamelin spoke about her traditional childhood and how she spoke Cree in a school in Peace River, Alberta. The school principal gave her the strap many times because she refused to stop speaking Cree. Finally, she stopped, not because of the beatings, but because other Cree children were being punished because of her.
Looking around St. Faith’s Church hall, she says, “For a month, the healing happened here.”
Sitting nearby is Hamelin’s friend and mentor, Elsie Paul, president of Kohkom Kisewatisiwin Society, known for its work as grandmothers (kohkoms), keepers of family, culture, and mentors for the young. Elder Elsie, as she is known, shows the red skirt she is sewing, decorated with a beaded pin as well as ribbons. She shares her choice of decoration: “I’m Cree-Métis and this pin represents the Métis people.”
The last sewing day was Monday, May 3. As is traditional, a feast filled two tables with delicious foods. Hamelin smudged the food, taking a portion outside as an offering in a traditional way. Several young women, including cousins Serenity Crier-Brazeau and Asia Brazeau, helped with the servings.
A gentle feeling spread among the participants, all of whom have worked hard and given so much of their time and commitment. Lichelle Kahnapace taught sewing; Rachel Manichoose donated many skirts; Kate Adams created all the lettering on the clothing. These women, and many others, “went the extra mile,” says Swampy.
The organizers make a special point of thanking their donors. A list of these important contributors, including Creating Hope Society, St. Faith’s Anglican Church, Saddle Lake Wellness Centre, Marshall Fabrics, Edmonton 2 Spirit Society, Tee Pee Treats Indigenous Cuisine, and Value Village can be found on the Go Fund Me Page Red Ribbon Skirt Project. The page is still open for donations.
Go Fund Me Page for Red Ribbon Skirt Project Edmonton: