fbpx
 

NEW TOWN, N.D. — When Agnes Woodward, 38, sat down to create the traditional ribbon skirt Secretary Deb Haaland — the newly confirmed head of Interior, and the first Native American to lead a federal department — would wear at her ceremonial swearing-in on Thursday, she said she was nervous the entire time.

“I had a fear, you know, and a part of growing up in a society that doesn't only refuse to see you sometimes, but denies your humanity as a first person of the land that you live on, there's a deep seeded... self doubt that comes with those kinds of experiences,” Woodward, who is Plains Cree from the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, told Native News Online.  

It wasn’t until she saw Haaland wearing the skirt and lacing up her moccasins hours before the ceremony that it hit Woodward: she, too, was making history. The short ceremony was live streamed on Somáh Haaland’s Instagram account around 11 a.m. Thursday morning.

Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, was ceremonially sworn in as the 54th Secretary of the Department of the Interior with an oath administered by Vice President Kamala Harris. “History is being made yet again,” Harris said after the oath.

Watching the ceremony from her home on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, where her husband and their children are enrolled members, Woodward was flooded with emotions.

“They hit me really hard, especially when somebody was… shaking me like ‘you're a part of history,’ you know, and it really hit me,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be a part of when you come from places that sometimes reject or refuse to see you and to acknowledge you, that I'm a part of a moment that's huge for every single Indigenous person in the world.”

agnes woodwardPlains Cree seamstress Agnes Woodward holds up the ribbon skirt she designed for Secretary Deb Haaland. (Agnes Woodward)

Woodward is a self-taught seamstress who has been in business with her husband under their company name ReeCreeations (a combination of the shorthand of her husband’s tribe, Arikara, and the name of her tribe, Cree) since 2018. 

She is a full time advocate for the Three Affiliated Tribes’ victim service center, and began sewing skirts to represent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two Spirit when her aunt, who was murdered in 1982, was added to Canada's list of MMIWG2S and began meeting with the federal government's national inquiry into the crisis. 

First Nations and Native American women, girls, and transgender people are disproportionately impacted by higher rates of violence and murder than nearly any other group in both the U.S. and Canada. The U.S Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average. Haaland herself introduced a bill in 2019 to increase focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States.

“So I decided, I'll do what I can from where I'm at, which was to create a ribbon skirt,” Woodward said. “I made a MMIWG2S ribbon skirt for my mom, and when I posted that I just had so many women inboxing me wanting that same design.” She said she’s made more than 300 of the skirts for family, activists and politicians ever since. 

Her most high-profile client, Sec. Haaland, came to her through a connection with a friend.

Haaland had asked a tribal resident on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Margaret Yellow Bird, to help her find somebody to create a ribbon skirt for the ceremony. Yellow Bird reached out to a few women to sketch designs, and Haaland picked Woodward’s design. The skirt was paid for by another mutual friend, and gifted to Haaland. 

The skirt, decorated with rainbow ribbons on royal blue material, had a corn stock applique sewn on to represent the wearer’s pueblo, Woodward said. The secretary also picked out two butterflies from previous designs of Woodward’s. The seamstress completed the design with pointed stars, which she said are her signature addition.

Haaland, who wore a different ribbon skirt designed by 19-year-old Bella Aiukli Cornell (Choctaw Nation) to President Biden’s inauguration in January, also wore traditional moccasins, a beaded turquoise necklace and a concho belt. Her turquoise earrings, shaped like dragonflies, were created by Laguna Pueblo metalsmith Pat Pruitt, according to his Instagram. “To say I am proud of her would be the understatement of the year,” Pruitt wrote. “As an artist, when you create something that is more than what it appears, you have this feeling deep down. You can't explain it, you can try, yet words often fail to capture the essence of what you have put into it. This is like that.”

Woodward concurs. “It's one of the most meaningful things I've done so far,” she said, “and something that I'll always definitely be proud of.”

More Stories Like This

Native News Weekly (November 27, 2022): D.C. Briefs
Sen. Schumer Announces $7.625 Million Federal Grant on Seneca Nation
#GivingTuesday: Here are 16 Native Nonprofits Worthy of Your Support
CBS Broadcasters Mock Native American College Basketball Player
Alcatraz Island: Indigenous People Gather at Sunrise on Thanksgiving

You’re reading the first draft of history. 

November is  Native American Heritage Month in the United States. We feel like every month — and every day — is a reason for celebrating Native Americans and our heritage. That’s what we try to do here at Native News Online, with stories each day that celebrate, inform and uplift American Indian and Alaska Native people. Over the past year or so, we have been especially busy with three important reporting projects that are having an impact across Indian Country:

  • Indian Boarding Schools. We’ve reported and published more than 150 stories and special live stream video events to help shine a light on the dark era of boarding schools — and help create momentum for change.
  • Native Health Desk. Launched in January, this reporting initiative was created to heighten awareness of Native American health inequities and spotlight pockets of progress in Indian Country. So far we’ve reported and published nearly 120 stories and launched a monthly health newsletter that reaches more than 23,000 readers.  
  • Native Bidaske. In March, we launched this live stream interview program to highlight the work of Native Americans who are making news and leading change in Indian Country.  We have hosted guests from the federal government and Native rights advocates as well as Indigenous actors, comedians, journalists and models.   

We hope you will join us in celebrating Native American heritage and history this November and invite you to consider the old adage that “Journalism is the first draft of history.” If you appreciate the voice Native News Online gives to Native American people, we hope you will support our work with a donation so we can build our newsroom and continue to amplify Native voices and Native perspectives.

Any contribution — big or small — helps us remain a force for change in Indian Country and continue telling the stories that are so often ignored, erased or overlooked.  Most often, our donors make a one-time gift of $20 or more, while many choose to make a recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10.  Whatever you can do, it helps fund our Indigenous-led newsroom and our ability to cover Native news. 

Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you. 

About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the publication's lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.