Indigenous, intergenerational sewing group empowers and heals through fashion

Dec. 14, 2023, midnight ·

Healing Ribbons Fashion Show Ending
The designers modeled their own garments and accessories for the Healing Ribbons fashion show on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. The group of intergeneration, intertribal women hoped to highlight issues facing Native American communities through their designs, including missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

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The lights dim in the packed auditorium in Creighton University’s Lied Education Center for the Arts on Sunday, Dec. 3. The fashion show is about to begin.

Backstage, the models are giddy with excitement.

Kimberly Bedford was modeling with her four-year-old granddaughter Odyssey. They are both Santee Sioux and Bedford created both of their outfits. Bedford thought of her son, Odyssey’s father, while she sewed them. He died in a car accident last year.

“When I got involved with sewing, you know, it took my mind off things. I mean it didn’t make the situation go away, but it helped,” Bedford said. “I’m glad I can do this with [Odyssey] because I know [my son] would be glad.”

Kimberly & Odyssey
Kimberly Bedford (left) walks her four-year-old granddaughter Odyssey to the stairs leading of the stage of the fashion show. Bedford said Odyssey was so excited to model, but wasn't too happy about waiting for her turn. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

Lestina Saul-Merdassi wore a red and yellow dress with a dentalium, or tusk shell, cape. She, like all the other models, designed her own regalia for the show.

“I do believe that we will be leading the change today and I’m very excited to be a part of that,” she said in a hushed tone.

This fashion event showcasing Native American beadwork, ribbon skirts and jingle dresses, was organized by a local group called Healing Ribbons. It’s an intergenerational, intertribal group of women from Nebraska and Iowa who all come together to sew. According to Rudi Mitchell, a former Native American studies professor at Creighton, there are over 160 different tribes represented throughout the Omaha area.

“It’s an educational thing for a lot of the non-Native people that are here,” he said.

Lestina Saul-Merdassi
Lestina Saul-Merdassi (Tate Ojajan Win) of Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate, poses at the front of the stage. Her form of dress is from the Oceti Sakowin. "My cape represents me as a Dakota woman and exhibits my cultural pride, while serving as a symbol of survival and revival. During the creation process, I reflected upon the strength and determination of my ancestors," she said in the fashion show program. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

Healing Ribbons co-founder Tami Buffalohead-McGill started the program in memory of her sister who froze to death five years ago. She became her niece Sierra Buffalohead’s guardian. And when she asked Sierra what she would like to do to stay close to her mother’s memory, Sierra had told her she’d like to sew. Just like she used to do with her mom.

More than 100 women showed interest after Buffalohead-McGill posted about it on Facebook. Buffalohead-Gill said she didn’t realize there was such a widespread need for this in her community.

“What I discovered when I was at the sewing classes, I felt that, for the first time, that a boulder had been lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “Just the act of sewing and being around and sharing stories with women who were in the same kind of situations that [I was ] in who had the same life experiences, there was a sense of comfort and connection.”

The sewing circle provides a creative outlet, and Buffalohead-McGill also organized for the women to work with a Native American mental health provider as they created their outfits for the show.

The women in this group are on their healing journey from centuries of historic trauma. And more recent ones too. Native American communities suffered a disproportionate loss of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Buffalohead-McGill alone lost eight close family members. And she said many of those Indigenous lives lost to the virus were culture bearers for the community.

“All of a sudden, not only we lost the people that we loved, but then we lost people that were the ones that taught us and instructed us and helped us learn who we are, and give us that sense of identity and connection,” Buffalohead-McGill explained.

Tami and Paula
Tami Buffalohead-McGill (left) of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, poses for a photo with Paula Crozier before the fashion show on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. Crozier is the executive director of the nonprofit Fashion Arts Collective in Omaha. "For me, to be part of this for over a year and watching everyone go from fabric and not even knowing what a sewing machine is, including myself, to be able tot put it together to what their regalia is today is absolutely remarkable," Crozier said. "To see the beauty of that come together is heartwarming." (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

And there’s another cause of pain. In 2021, recovered records indicated nearly 100 children at the government-run Indigenous boarding school in Genoa had died there. A series of digs have taken place on the former school’s 640-acre grounds to find the children suspected to be buried there. Digs will continue this spring.

“That really traumatized a lot of people, that triggered people. But it also started a dialogue,” Buffalohead-McGill said. “I think what we want to do is show ourselves that we are valued, that we do matter and that our culture is important and it is an important part of who we are. If anything, it’s going to help us move forward in our healing journey.”

Historical traumas like these are seen as a “soul wound” for many Native American communities, according to Dr. Natalie Avalos, an assistant Ethnic Studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is of Mexican Indigenous descent.

“Things like trauma are actually hereditary, they can change your DNA and we can pass them on generationally.”

And Avalos said a potent way to heal from that trauma caused by generations of violence and marginalization is through participating in culturally relevant practices—like hosting a fashion show.

Sewing group
The sewing group has been meeting for a little more than a year, but decided to host a fashion show about six months ago. Many of the feathers were donated by Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and Pets R Us in Ralston. (Photo courtesy of Tami Buffalohead-McGill/Healing Ribbons)

“Doing these things together, it really humanizes because it enables people to see the beauty of their own culture, to see the beauty of their own traditions,” she said. “It’s a way of really taking back your power. And that, in itself, is so healing.”

Kimberly Bedford had grown up in a home where being Native American was seen as something to hide. She went to a boarding school in Winnebago where she only spoke English. As a result, her grandparents only spoke to her in English rather than their native tongue. Bedford said she hopes this show will teach her granddaughter to feel empowered by her culture.

“I just want her to be proud of who she is. You know, when she says she’s Indian or Native American, you know, that she knows a little bit about her history.”

Kimberly Bedford poses holding her handmade dress and belt in her Omaha home on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. She said her regalia represents reclaiming her culture since her mother looked down on being Indian. "I like to share our culture. I'm proud of who I am," she said. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

Bedford wants to take her daughter—along with her granddaughter—to the sewing circle once they start up again in January.

“She doesn’t know how to sew, but I will help her. And I think that that would be good for me and her relationship.”

Ruteena Alcantara volunteered at the fashion show. She is with the Omaha Nation and said she plans on getting more involved with Healing Ribbons to be able to heal herself.

“The art of healing, and this generational way of doing it, is just so positive, and being able to heal culturally, and doing it in a way of learning things about your culture, and part of Regalia and how to make it and how to put it together and what all of its symbolism is, is all just a process of just kind of celebrating that culture and healing at the same time,” she said.

Although the women in the fashion show agree it didn’t make their traumas disappear, it helped to know they weren’t alone —allowing for a new way to feel proud of their identity.