By Drew Hayden Taylor
Originally published in September 2016
Not long ago my partner was attending an Aboriginal healing function when she found out there was going to be a women’s ceremony included, one that she had not been told about in advance.
Under normal circumstances that would not have been a problem. For most it’s usually an enjoyable and respected experience where women come together to share and heal. But her immediate first thought dealt with the fact she hadn’t brought along the proper attire, specifically a long skirt that fell to her ankles. It is usually what is worn by women to take part in such spiritual ceremonies. In some cases, it is the only below the waist apparel permitted.
Women who dress otherwise often face the threat of what is called ‘skirt shaming’, which has become an issue of controversy in the Native community.
Skirt shaming is when women who do not meet the so-called dress code are criticized for being disrespectful to tradition, and either asked to leave the circle or are somehow required to change their clothing to adhere to protocol.
Some Elders who hold these ceremonies can be quite rigid in enforcing etiquette of this type. Stories abound in the community of women who have been asked to leave ceremonies because of how they are dressed, some in long pants, others might be wearing shorts or skirts of different lengths, citing that these ceremonies are to honour women and that involves a certain modesty in dressing as well as an adherence to what might be called traditional attire.
Frequently, this censure might be done publically, in front of other participants in the circle. For many, this would not be considered a good way to heal.
“Yes, unfortunately it is a common experience” says Joanne Dallaire, Resident Elder for Ryerson University’s Aboriginal Student Services, who herself discourages the practice. Author Lee Maracle agrees, adding “I have heard it actually traumatizes some women.”
It’s not uncommon for friends and family to receive panicked calls from women who had forgotten such skirts, or were unaware ceremonies had been planned for certain events, desperately seeking immediate delivery of adequate coverage for their legs.
It’s the definition of this so-called modest and traditional attire that can get many people upset. Many believe it is not so cut and dry.
Leanne Simpson, noted Anishnawbe author, says “We have some important practices and stories about skirt wearing for women. We have some ceremonial leaders that have very rigid protocols around gender. I have seen women and girls pressured into wearing skirts and excluded if they don’t feel comfortable doing this. I have been pressured into wearing a skirt in order to participate.”
In a country with several dozen different cultures and languages, requiring one particular mode of dress is next to impossible. Lee Maracle tells this story of attending a conference when she was a young woman, wearing a short skirt, high boots, and a provocatively thin t-shirt. A male Elder came up to her after her presentation and chastised her for not being respectful in how she had dressed for the event.
‘Maybe you should consider dressing the way your ancestors would have wanted.’ Immediately agreeing with the old man, she took her top off, adding that traditionally Salish women went topless during the hot summer months.
Respectful traditional apparel has become even more of an issue in the Aboriginal LGBT community where the lines of gender dressing are frequently blurred. Recently I was at an Elders’ conference where a noted Elder commented that she was Two Spirited and as a result, refused to wear a skirt and damn the consequences.
“I would like to point out that gay women would not necessarily have dressed as women; they were free to dress as men. In fact, we were all free to dress as we wanted” comments Lee Maracle, author, activist and cultural mentor for the University of Toronto’s First Nations House.
Leanne Simpson agrees. “In rebuilding our nations and our communities, I don’t think we can afford to replicate sexism, homophobia and gender violence.”
The reason for such a strict dogmatic approach to such ceremonies? There are several schools of thought, many of them not flattering. Some believe it is a desire to desexualize the person in clothing that does not hug the body. Ceremonies are spiritual, not physical. Others feel it is no different than wearing your ‘Sunday Best’ to Church on Sundays. On occasion, the term ‘hijab’ comes up.
Lee Maracle has her own ideas. She suggests “skirt shaming is yet another way to promote patriarchy in our community. No one expects men to wear the old ‘mini-skirts’ of the 1800’s, but women are expected to wear the long skirts of the same era.” I believe the ‘old mini-skirts’ for men she was referring to are more commonly known as breach cloths. It should also be pointed out that there doesn’t seem to be any male equivalent of skirt shaming.
Leanne Simpson thinks skirt shaming has darker overtones.
“We were forced to wear skirts in residential schools, at church and in missions in order to assimilate us from being Nishnaabeg women into the ideals of settler housewives. Under colonialism the skirt has been and still is in many cases a tool of oppression. Indigenous women’s bodies remember this.”
Full Time Elder in Residence for Wilfrid Laurier University Elder Banakonda Kennedy-Kish agrees.
“Shaming is sourced in the overlay of Christian doctrine’s focus on good and evil, of silencing, of black and white framing. It is also a gate keeping method. “She adds “It undermines concept of non-interfering, respect for diversity, and can promote sexism.”
How to deal with this issue has been discussed frequently in the Native community, trying to find that middle ground between respecting the ceremony and also the people participating. Lee Maracle confesses she just goes ahead and wears pants, and if this is a problem, refuses to participate in a ceremony she considers unfair.
Some, like Joanne Dallaire, believe the best way to address the problem is to be aware of what ceremony you are attending and who is leading it.
“I have been taught to ask what the Elder doing the ceremony expects and if that goes against your teachings then I suggest you don’t attend. Having said that, for me I choose not to believe in teachings that are shaming or blaming and believe that how we come to ceremony is more important about our frame of mind than what we are wearing.”
Leanne Simpson agrees. “In my own life I don’t always feel comfortable wearing a skirt, particularly if I am being pressured. I have seen the skirt wearing stories shared and ceremonial leaders adding that it is up to individuals to decide what they wear. I mostly work with Elders that believe that consent, respect for individual self-determination, diversity and non-interference, basic Nishnaabeg values, are more important than rigid protocols.”
“I have heard a lot of stories that are horrific…why would we want to continue to force anyone to do anything in the name of spirituality” says Lee Maracle.
Why does that question sound vaguely familiar?