The Skirt Project: connecting gender, religion, and colonialism

My name is Natalia, and I am a third year law student at the University of Victoria. I grew up on the territory of the Qayqayt First Nation, in New Westminster, British Columbia, and have since lived on Otomí, Totonac, Nahua and WSANEC lands. I’ve spent the last four months as a summer research assistant to Professor Rebecca Johnson, who has given me fascinating research tasks as well as significant freedom to explore related topics.skirt poster

The research project started with a question about skirts. Why are women in some indigenous communities required to wear long skirts to participate in spiritual ceremonies? This question about a practice known as the “skirt protocol” quickly blossomed into a series of interconnected queries about the relationship of clothing to culture, religion, tradition, gender, colonialism, and identity. The complexity of these topics led me to simplify my job description when asked about it, and as a result most of my friends and family have been extremely jealous of my summer job “googling skirts”.

googly squirrel

And I did engage in a significant amount of exploratory googling, bookmarking hundreds of newspaper articles, blog posts, and Twitter exchanges with the word “skirt” in the title. I also just talked to people. In casual discussions with family and friends about my research, I was really struck by how many individuals have had something to say about it. Almost every single woman I spoke with (and a few men, too) immediately wanted to share a personal anecdote about a moment in which they confronted rules about what they could or could not wear. For many people, these stories brought up strong feelings of anger, indignation, and resentment, even when they had occurred years earlier.

stripe skirtThis was particularly true of my aunt, who recalled being made to kneel on the ground as a seventh-grader while her school principal measured the distance from her hemline to the floor. She describes being made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. hijabHer mother, my 81-year-old grandma, remembers the incident as well. She marched to the school to support my aunt knowing that the skirt did, in fact, violate the dress code, because my aunt had outgrown it and she couldn’t afford to buy a new one – and because the vice principal’s own daughter had worn the exact same skirt and had not been punished. For my aunt, the primary injustice of the situation was related to gender; the dress code was unfair because it imposed much stricter rules on girls than on boys. For my grandmother, the injustice was class-based: the dress code was unfair because it was hard for lower-income families to ensure their children complied with it, and because it was unevenly enforced based on social rank. Both my aunt and my grandmother were right, and their experiences only go to show that rules about clothing are not neutral, arbitrary, or trivial, but in fact affect people in diverse and disproportionate ways.

But what does this slight from nearly five decades ago have to do with reconciliation?

churchRules about how we dress are sometimes obvious and sometimes not, but either way, they are so ubiquitous that nearly everyone can recognize the symbolic power of clothing and identify with the experience of being told what or what not to wear. This means that clothing provides a really useful “way in” to more complex debates about cultural identity, spirituality, tradition, and gender in indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Serious tensions over how women should dress occur across diverse populations, but they are further complicated for indigenous peoples by the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing struggle to decolonize. Questions about whether the skirt protocol is really an indigenous tradition quickly give way to questions about how colonialism affects traditional practices, who has the power to decide which traditions are valuable, and how people are differently impacted by traditionalism depending on their gender. Learning about the rationales for the skirt protocol quickly spawns more questions about the relationship between spiritual belief and indigenous identity. Exploring indigenous identity leads to important questions about cultural authenticity. web

This month, British Columbia will implement a new K-12 curriculum which mandates inclusion of indigenous content, perspectives, and pedagogies, and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women will officially begin. The new curriculum responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action by attempting to address the education system’s failure to acknowledge the grievous harm done by colonialism, and the system’s own role in committing and perpetuating that harm. The Inquiry will attempt to understand and address the enormous problem of violence against indigenous women. I think that reconciliation is best served when we make visible the connections between these two projects.

Over the summer, I developed a series of resources which I hope will be useful for learning and teaching about these connections and for facilitating conversations about how clothing is connected to gender, colonialism, religion, culture, and identity, using the skirt protocol as a point of entry. The resources are varied in scope and content. They include a short video as well as a Prezi presentation, and a paper entitled Clothing the Collective which explores these topics in greater detail. There are a series of workshop ideas and lesson plans: see the Talking Skirts Lesson Plan and Backgrounder and the Creating Conversations Activities. There is an annotated list of existing teaching resources, which I’ve categorized by grade level and format: see Teaching Resources. All of the materials have also been consolidated into a single document, available here: The Skirt Project Consolidated Materials. I hope that these materials can be of use in responding to Calls 27 and 28 and 60 to 63 of the TRC’s Calls to Action.

This project received support from the Religion and Diversity Project and the Indigenous Law Research Unit. For further information, please feel free to contact myself at, or Professor Rebecca Johnson, at