Indigenous Ribbon Work Always Tells a Story


Indigenous ribbon work was thrust into the spotlight last week when Interior of the Secretary Deb Haaland wore a traditional ribbon skirt for her swearing-in ceremony in Washington, D.C. Made by ReeCreeations, her vibrant skirt featured imagery of corn and butterflies, was covered in colorful ribbons, and made a bold statement of cultural pride. ReeCreeations is one of many Indigenous labels reviving the art of ribbon work in new, modern ways—as are artists such as Skawennati and Abigail Echo-Hawk. (The latter recently made a ribbon-style dress out of body bags, as a way to acknowledge how Native communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.)

Many Indigenous tribes utilize ribbon work in their designs, often for powwow regalia or pieces made for special occasions. Ribbons are sewn onto skirts, dresses, and shirts, and each color of the ribbons has a special significance to the wearer. Different tribes have different techniques of applying them, but as a whole, the colorful strips are all equally symbolic—and always tell a story. And now, a new ribbon-work designer is adding even more meaning to the longstanding craft.

Geronimo Louie is using ribbon work to embrace his Two-Spirit identity and to challenge the notion of what traditional design can be. (Two-Spirits are Indigenous people possessing both male and female spirits, and identify with both genders.) Based in Gallup, New Mexico, Louie—who is Chiricahua Apache and Navajo—only recently started getting into ribbon work, which he learned from his grandmother. He started creating pieces for himself a few years ago, saying he wanted to wear traditional ribbon dresses and skirts but couldn’t find them anywhere. “[In my community], there’s no Two-Spirit men wearing ribbon skirts,” says Louie. “When I first started wearing traditional womenswear outfits, I felt so alone because I didn’t see anybody doing that.”

One of the first ribbon-work designs Louie made for himself was for a Diné Pride event in 2019. He wanted to wear a fancy-shawl-dancer outfit—a type of regalia mostly worn by women. So he made an all-white ensemble adorned with multicolor ribbons to showcase that he is a proud, queer, Two-Spirit person. “Fancy shawl dancing is a symbol of joy and happiness,” Louie says. “The story I’ve been told is, when Indigenous people were suffering, a little girl picked up her shawl and started dancing to the music, and she brought joy to the people. Her inspiration [for the dance] was a butterfly.” Louie added ribbons shaped into butterflies to the outfit’s apron as an ode to the dance’s origins. “I’ve heard they look real when I dance because the wings flap,” says Louie.

From that initial design, Louie began creating more ribboned pieces for himself and sharing them on social media—and people swiftly began taking notice. Now, Louie takes orders as well and makes all sorts of ribbon-work designs, from skirts with embroidered strawberries and flowers to off-the-shoulder dresses with embroidered wolf imagery. He displays his vibrant designs, mostly skirts and dresses, on his Instagram page. “Most of my ‘traditional’ clothes are very contemporary,” Louie says. His Star Wars–themed ribbon shirt, for instance, blends tradition with images of C3PO and Yoda. He will also add high slits or fun fringing to his ribbon skirts, which traditionally are more streamlined and simple.

Louie’s eye for design isn’t limited to just ribbon work either. Recently, he started making lingerie and robes. “My goal this year is to go out of my comfort zone and create new things,” he says. (He grew up loving Moulin Rouge and Bettie Page, two inspirations for his lingerie work.) Coming up on Pride Month, he’ll also be playing around with some more high-fashion ideas too. He wants to find more unexpected ways to incorporate his signature ribbons into his designs, a nod to his cultural craft. He sees the potential to use them in more unusual ways or as avant-garde embellishments. “I’m thinking of making a Lady Gaga–inspired outfit,” he says. “A sheer, sportswear look with ribbons. Something very futuristic and gay.”

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