It was in December 2020, when 10 year old Bella Kulak of Kamsack, Saskatchewan wore a traditional Indigenous ribbon skirt to formal day at school.
The skirt, handmade by her Auntie, is black with flowers on the fabric and blue and green ribbon sewn on. She wore it with an orange shirt only to be told by an educational assistant that it wasn’t appropriate for formal day and she should’ve worn something store bought. Read the story here at APTN National News.
So, that’s where I sort of lose it. My protective Auntieness kicks in and I want to fight for this little girl. I want to ask why any adult would dare say anything like that to a child–or anyone else for that matter. There was steam coming from my ears let me tell ya… oh, I was ticked to say the least.
How dare she/he (the EA)? What gives that educational assistant, or anyone, the right to judge and shame? What is the motivation? Is it all cultural? What would have been said if Bella wore torn jeans, running shoes, and a Simpson’s t-shirt? Or a sari? Or kimono? Or an old dress of her mom’s… It’s no ones business and it’s never their right to make assumptions about anyone. Period.
This is a blatant case of bullying and sadly I think it probably happens more than we know.
You know, we often think of a “bully” as being the big strong brute out in the playground who pushes all the little kids around. We either forget or neglect the reality, that bullies also come disguised as educational assistants, bosses, or even a so-called friend. Bullies come in every shape, colour, size, and sex and from all walks of life.
Bella is my new hero. The reason being is that she went back to her parents and told them what happened. She felt safe and confident enough that her parents would help her, and they did.
The history behind the ribbon skirt goes back centuries for North American Indigenous people. While it is often used for festivals or special occasions it is also a sign of strength and sisterhood. With the torrid history in Canada of missing and murdered Indigenous woman, the ribbon skirt is, for many, a symbol of resilience.
As CBC News states:
The skirt has a different meaning for each person who wears it, but for many, the skirt is a symbol of resilience. In the 1800s, some Indigenous ceremonies and the clothing and ceremonial items associated with them were banned by the Canadian government under the terms of what was known as the Potlatch Law. Ceremonies wouldn’t be legal again until 1951.“Sandra Brace CBC News
It still boils down to blatant rudeness and inappropriate comments from an adult to a child. Bella started off the day happy wearing her chosen skirt, only to be judged and made to feel less-than. You know, this story wouldn’t be acceptable if an adult said it to another adult either, but the fact of the matter is that an Educational Assistant, a person of authority within the school, was the one saying it to a ten year old child.
As the story goes, the Superintendent of the school district apologized on behalf of the school and staff. There was a promise to do more to raise awareness of Indigenous traditions and issues for everyone.
Bella received great community and international support and understanding. This incident, though it starts off with a broken heart and wounded spirit, ends with enduring strength and appears to have taken Bella on to the new roll of ambassador. Many people have now come to learn about the ribbon skirt and its significance. Bella showed strength, poise, and self confidence in the midst of an upsetting ordeal but she continued forward to remain tall and proud. Brava.
A positive came out of the negative experience. A lesson was learned and it needs to be embraced and built upon… If we can’t learn from it then it will happen again.
In this story there are a couple of take aways that are so very important.
First the communication that Bella has with her parents is great.
Too many kids don’t tell their parents about such incidents at school. They’re embarrassed or don’t have the confidence within themselves to know that what transpired was actually an attack on them. They may believe they’re the cause of it. They’ll need that reassurance to be able to speak without fear of reprisal or judgement.
Bella’s parents obviously did a great job in providing safe space for her to be able to speak any truth she experienced. While she may not have realized what was happening on a larger scale, Bella knew that the words from the educational assistant hurt her feelings in some way. To be able to later discuss and work out the details with her parents was key.
My knee jerk reaction was to go to that Educational Assistant and give her a piece of my mind but what actually happened is so much better.
A whole awareness was borne of this incident.
I personally didn’t know the history behind the ribbon skirt and now feel thankful to have learned some more of the history of our Indigenous population.
The second thing that we must all realize is rethink and redefine the word “bully”.
It’s a word that’s way over used and we don’t know what or who a bully is anymore. It’s not just about hands-on violence anymore. It’s much more subtle and comes from all directions.
Help define it with your children. Here’s a list to begin a discussion:
- if anyone is trying to make you do something you don’t want to do
- if anyone makes you feel embarrassed or ashamed
- if another person causes you to feel separate from the group
- hands on are an absolute No.
- any kind of violence–kicking, pinching, hair pulling–even in the name of play…like tag where the loser gets kicked (yes, that’s a real thing) or here’s another….the loser gets “pantsed”–their pants are pulled down in the playground or someone gets “t-bagged” that is the groin to the face of the loser lying on the ground
- made to feel less than because you’re a girl, or boy, or a person who wants to play but is excluded for any reason
- any type of behavior that makes you feel less than because you’re different–this could be race, language, gender, shyness, dress, disability …to name a few
- anyone who isolates, name calls, gossips, lies…the list goes on
- let’s not forget the cyber stuff too–this can happen in games, chats, social media etc. The kids need to know to talk about it because there is a fix to it.
- Remember, children have died through incidents of bullying and that should never happen
- gawking or watching someone else get bullied is not okay… tell someone. Bella did. She’s my hero!
Please be safe. Remember that your words have tremendous power to wound or to lift up… I certainly hope you choose the latter.