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





Teaching the 94 Calls to Action in the Classroom

Elder Butch Dick, offering words of welcome (photo credit: Carol Liao)


This year, as part of the Legal Process course at UVic, we took two days in January, (cancelled all other first year law classes) and brought the students back into their Legal Process groups to spend some concentrated time on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s “94 Calls to Action.”

What follows is first a description of what we did over the two days, and then some comments on how these materials could be adapted for use more generally.


  • On the first morning (a 3 hour block), we had a panel of 6 speakers. The goal was, in an embodied way, to introduce our students to the history and context for the establishment of the TRC, including the history and legacy of Residential Schools.  Here is the agenda for the day Agenda for Jan 20 – Day 1 panel  (sorry…it will come up on its side, so you may have to rotate it to read it).  In brief, we had:
    • a Welcome to the territories by Songhees Elder Butch Dick, Artist and Educator
    • Tla-o-qui-aht Elder Barney Williams Jr, member of the TRC Indian Residential School Survivor Committee
    • Karla Point, Hesquiaht First Nation and UVic Cultural Support Coordinator
    • UVic (law) Prof Rebecca Johnson, giving an overview of the legal history leading to the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action [See below for more on this]
    • Ry Moran, Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
    • Aimee Craft, Director of Research, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
    • UVic (visual anthropology) Prof Andrea Walsh, speaking about the process of repatriating children’s art from a provincial residential school
    • UVic Chancellor Shelagh Rogers, Honorary Witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • On the second morning (another 3 hour block), following a short debrief of the day before, the students worked in small groups on a set of exercises aimed at introducing them working collaboratively and individually with the 94 Calls, with the goal being, in part, developing fluency with the content (that is, just knowing what is IN the document).  Here is a copy of the exercise handout.TRC 2016 assignment handout.  Here is a copy of the instructor notes that were distributed to the teachers facilitating the small group work.  Instructor notes for TRC session-jan19


Because these two days were part of a mandatory course, attendance was expected for the two days (for students who were unable to make one session or there other, there was an alternative exercise).  While this was mandatory, we did not want to create more work for either faculty or students:  we wanted a space to do some work, but not in a way that would be overwhelming.  Indeed, the focus was in large measure not on the entire history of residential schools, but on the 94 Calls to Action.

  • We did NOT ask them to read anything in advance, nor did we give them any additional readings about the TRC or its history. We presume that there will be much to do on this front over the course of the students’ education.  At THIS point, we wanted to work exclusively with the 12 page document that is the TRC Calls to Action.
  • To set the context, there was some coordination with first year profs early in the year/term, so that all the students had already had a few lectures relating to issues emerging in the TRC Calls to Action [including a lecture in Criminal law on the Kikkik case, and Inuit relocations; a lecture in Constitutional law on the history of Govt/Indigenous relations leading up to the establishment of residential schools]
  • The first day panel was an intense experience, in a good way.  We had struggled in advance over the question of whether or not to ask someone to come speak with us about their residential school experience. On the one hand was the worry that Indigenous folks are all too often asked to share in contexts that are very exacting (that is, I was not wanting to do more damage).  On the other hand, people pointed out the real importance of having space made for those voices, and of letting others make the decisions.  Certainly, Barney and Karla’s participation was a crucial part of the experience.  As many students noted afterwards, it is one thing to have read about things.  It is a very different experience to be physically present with someone who speaks to their experience.  This was a super helpful piece of situating WHY the TRC Calls to Action matter so profoundly.
  • Part of the goal for the second day small group work was to enable them to meet up again with the groups with whom they had spent the first two weeks of law school.  It was also designed to be more practical and hands on — to look concretely at the text of the 94 calls, and to have a chance to work with them collaboratively with others.
  • In addition to ‘attendance’/participation in the group work, the “assignment” was two small pieces of reflective (non-graded) writing:  at the end of each of the two days, students were to submit a post to a blog (set up so that no one but the teacher would see their comments).  They could put down anything they wanted in terms of responses/comments/thoughts/questions.  The piece would show up as complete/incomplete based on simply the submission of text, and there were no marks for brilliance, nor content. The point was to create a space for reflective thinking, focus on the process of thinking, not on the substance of the thought.


These materials were later adapted for use in the context of an upper year Criminal Law seminar course, using two class sessions.

  1. The first class session was in the nature of a lecture/powerpoint, setting up the legal context that resulted in the TRC Calls to Action.  Attached is the powerpoint, which people should feel free to use/modify/adapt, etc. [TRC powerpoint-for sharing]  I have a longer draft narrative text which walks a person through the powerpoint.  I also have an audio file from the talk for Legal Process.  If you want a copy of either, email me at  I am happy to pass them along.  The point is to introduce students to the largest class-action in Canadian history (the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement – IRSSA), and to have them see the structure of the settlement agreement.  This helps to make visible who is and who is not covered by the IRSSA.
  2. For ‘homework’ after the first session, hand out copies of the TRC 94 Calls to Action (the document is only 12 pages long), and ask them to read it through, and highlight “The federal government” every time they see it mentioned.  While the feds are not the only actors, they ARE a party to the Settlement Agreement (IRSSA).  Thus, the highlighting helps to make visible the sections that speak to their particular obligations.  Highlighting the document also helps the students see more clearly how many other parties are present in the document.  The other reason to have them highlight is to help with the reading (having a task helps ground the reading, so that eyes don’t just slide over the text and out of focus).
  3. The second class session involves working with the same assignment we used for Legal Process.  Here it is. TRC 2016 assignment handout.  And here are the instructor notes  Instructor notes for TRC session-jan19.  But, in brief:
    • The first exercise focuses on Recommendations 1-42.  The goal in each case is not to have students ‘debate’ the recommendations, or consider IF they should be adopted (that would be OK too, but would be a different exercise than the one we used here), but is rather to spend the time trying to ask [in a very descriptive way] what a working group might do, if they were working for a government who was committed to acting on the Calls to Action.  The goal is to imagine a space that is actively affirmative and committed to reconciliation.
    • It  helps to divide students into 5 different groups (Justice, Education, Health, Language and Culture, Child Welfare), so each group is only focusing on a handful of recommendations.  It also helps for them to have flip chart paper to work on [part of the goal is to also provide a chance for collaborative work and discussion], with plenty of coloured pens.  Remind them as they map out strategies to also be including the section numbers.  The goal is less for them to SOLVE problems, than to be able to describe the sections, and identify the kinds of verbs and parties involved.  For the exercise, we asked them to imagine themselves as the federal government.  But many recommendations are aimed at other parties, or are collaborative.  So the goal was also for them to think about the mechanisms they would need to put in place to build relations with the other parties they are to be collaborating with.  It was helpful (when touching base with the groups as they work) to keep reminding them to think about questions like “division of powers”, and “cooperative federalism”, and also about resources OTHER than money.  If they work on flip charts, you can hang them up, so that they can move around to see what the other groups have come up with, which can help in identifying themes.
    • The second exercise (10 different possible questions to work on) was designed to focus on Recommendations 43-94.  These questions again presume people in the community, and don’t require the student to imagine themselves as a lawyer.  They can be providing information more generally based on their knowledge.  The goal is to help an interested person locate sections that may be of interest, and to think about creative solutions.  Here, try to focus them in on finding recommendations that might be drawn up even where they don’t require action (that is, consider that there are recommendations that might serve as inspiration for people wanting to take steps, rather than seeing them only as obligations to  be met or avoided).  This approach makes it easier for them to read the sections with a sense of who is invited in, and the kinds of actions of reconciliation that might be imagined.

The above was one way of introducing the 94 Calls to Action into an upper year crim law class.  Given the breadth of the calls, it is hopefully clear that one might just as easily do this in the context of many other law school classes.  Indeed, it is also possible to do this with high school or general community groups, adapting the materials both to the time available, and the particular interests of the group.