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






WHAT’S ‘YOUR’ TREATY? – A Call#28 In-class Exercise (with thanks to Michael Asch and Alan Hanna)

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, Canadians are told of the importance of Treaties, both about teaching them, and knowing them. Many of us in Law Schools are focused on Call #28.

28.  We Call upon law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

On-Being-Here-to-Stay-Treaties-and-Aboriginal-Rights-in-CanadaThis is fine in the abstract, but, as with many things, the devil is in the details. My experience is that relatively few law students already know what treaty governs them. Indeed, many law professors are in the same situation.

Certainly, I found myself squarely in the camp of the non-knowledgeable earlier this year while sitting in on Val Napoleon’s Indigenous Legal Theory Class. Alan Hanna (a lawyer with Woodward and Company, a law firm that works exclusively for First Nations organizations and governments) came to give a guest lecture. He began by suggesting a round of introductions. He asked us to each tell him our name, and what treaty territory we were born in. As Alan told us, this is a question that anthropologist Michael Asch has been asking his students for years.


Because I work at a University that attempts to acknowledge the territory as part of its protocols, I knew that I was living on unceded Lekwungen, WSÁNEĆ and Coast Salish Territory. But that was not the question posed. I did NOT know which treaty applied in the place where I was born (Calgary). My first impulse was to blame my mother for that appalling gap in my knowledge base (I mean, why take responsibility when you can displace it?!). However, I was also pretty sure that I recalled my mom talking to me about treaties when she was taking University courses in her 60s. I just had not remembered or retained that information. I wasn’t sure which was worse: knowing that I did not know the answer, or seeing so clearly that I was not alone. Several of us in the class experienced challenges in providing an answer.

Map from

Alan/Michael’s question was super-useful in terms of making visible that there are concrete things individual people can do to begin the process of reconciliation. Thus. Note to self: one step in the direction of reconciliation is to “know the name of the treaty that applies in the territory in which you were BORN, as well as in the territory in which you currently LIVE.” And so, inspired (aka ‘tail firmly between my legs’), I scuttled off to the internet, to find and then read about Treaty 7 (for you Calgarians out there!)


A second step in the direction of reconciliation might be “figure out how to work TREATIES into one of the classes you teach this year, no matter what subject you teach”.    What follows, then, is a walk-through of an excercise using “The Treaty Question” in a classroom of 40ish students. This is how Alan and I (who went on to co-teach a course on Indigenous Research Methods and Practice this summer) set it up, in order to get at the benefits of the question with a smaller risk of embarrassment to people who don’t know the answer.


On the first day of class, we ended things with the following assignment. We asked the students to take a few minutes in the evening, and go online to find out what treaty governed the place they were from. In setting up the exercise, I told them how I had been asked this question in a workshop and had been unable to answer it (argh… it is TRUE!!! And it was somewhat humiliating). My thought was that it was better to acknowledge to the students that many of us are in the same rickety boat, so that people could throw themselves into a new exercise without fear or embarrassment about a knowledge gap. This is the thing about growing up in a colonial context. There are many knowledge gaps.

We left the students with some freedom on the ‘from’ part of the question. It could mean where they were born, or where they grew up, or where they were currently living. They were told they would report back to the group the following day, and would be required to tell us three things:

  1. What treaty applies in the place you are from (born in, grew up in, living in now)?
  2. What is something you found interesting or unexpected while doing the research for this assignment?
  3. What is your favourite dessert?


Because this was the beginning of the term, not all of the students knew the others. So at one level, this assignment functioned a bit like an ‘icebreaker’. But is also functioned in a number of other ways:

  1. Substantively, this is a great way to get conversation going about Treaties. For many students, it is likely to be the first time they have been asked the question, have been able to provide an answer to the question, or looked at the text of a treaty. Because the students will likely be from a number of different places, it also means that you will have real variety. For example, in our class, we had a student visiting from Europe, who said that there was no treaty governing her. That was a great answer, as it enabled a good discussion about (for example) The Treaty of Westphalia. If that happens, it opens up space for talking about how Treaties in North America are or are not like other kinds of treaties. (Also, depending on the class you were teaching, it could enable a discussion of failures to keep the terms of a treaty, ie. Can one person get out of it unilaterally? Does a breach of a term necessarily invalidate the treaty itself?).
  1. It enabled the students to go do a bit of research on their own right at the beginning of the class (rather than just being given a map of treaties, or being told what treaty governed), in order to answer a question that was “theirs” (ie. It would differ depending on where they were from). Since they were left to do it on their own, it enabled them to develop their own search strategy, and to see something of what is out there in the world (for both the good and the bad). It also meant that they would have a chance to see, talk about and compare some of the different resources out there.
  1. The students were asked to share what they had learned with their classmates. The point of this was not simply that they acquire knowledge, but that they share it. Each student had a few minutes to ‘teach’ their classmates something substantive (which treaties apply where) and also to practice their own talking/oral/aural skills (in a very low-stakes context). This disrupted the conventional model of the professor as teacher, since the students were active participants in knowledge transmission.   It is also ‘collaborative’ in some important ways (collaborating as a class to come up with our own mapping of treaties), and this too supports the skill-development set out in Call #28.
  1. This approach provided space to develop community in a way that a typical icebreaker wouldn’t. The students tended to share in a different way: they were sharing their research process, along with something of what was surprising or unexpected to them. It meant that we spent a very interesting hour, listening to people give gently personalized accounts about search strategies and their responses to learning about the treaty that was ‘theirs’. We were still telling each other something of where we were ‘from’, but in a way different from the way we usually do it: we were each asked to describe ourselves as governed by a particular treaty. It made space for the students to begin the work of making community with each other. While any form of introduction might work for this, doing it in this way disrupted the more common pattern of replying on disciplinary background or degrees or urban/rural (which can be alienating for some students).


  • USING A CIRCLE: When we did this exercise in class, we used the ‘circle methodology’: that is, we broke up the classroom space, rearranging things so that we were sitting in a circle facing each other. There were two of us facilitating the class, so the circle began with one of us and closed with the other [a great technique for circles if you are fortunate enough to have two people facilitating/teaching the class]. Some thoughts on using a circle. If you can do it from time to time, awesome. Clearly, this is more or less of a challenge (and indeed, more or less possible) depending on the structure of the room in which you teach. There are some great advantages to using the circle method for some exercises. Most powerfully, it really lets people speak to each other. In some ways, this is because you can’t really take notes or work with laptops: there is no place to hide! Indeed, you get the advantage of a laptop-free space without having to fight for it. There is something powerful where people are talking to each other and can see each other at the same time. While I think the exercise can work in whatever space you have, it is worth thinking about disruptions to conventional classroom space for this exercise. There is something about the change in space that can also support a change in how the students both share and hear information that is being discussed.   It gives people a chance to really practice their listening skills, and leans more in the direction of the skills list set out in the TRC Call #28.
  • MULTIPLE ITERATIONS: I think this is an exercise that could be done multiple times, and in multiple classroom contexts.   Even if the class participant (student or prof) ‘knew’ the answer already, it would leave space for people to re-read, learn something new, share something new, reinforce what they already knew, make new connections.   Depending on the class you are teaching, students can be asked to engage with the treaties in more or less complex ways (for example, in  Family Law, International Law, Conflicts of Law). There is something to be said, however, for beginning where you are: to taking seriously the notion that knowledge can be acquired in layers, and that people can return to the same question multiple times. There is value in doing so in ways that enable people to connect the TRC questions to their own person experience. This lets people do learning in ways that connect them to their own experience of place. It can enable people to connect to land, while opening space for conversations about the obligations one has within a treaty, and about how one learns about treaty obligations moving into a new space.
  • saltyCaramelsSlipping
    My favourite dessert?  Chocolates hand-dipped by a sibling, of course!

    “DESSERT”: We were not just being flippant in asking the students to share their favourite dessert after telling us what they had learned about the treaty that governs the place they are from. We were asking students to do an exercise that can be uncomfortable/challenging for a number of communities for a number of reasons. It may be challenging for indigenous students who may be thinking about broken promises, connections to land, etc. It may also involve some discomfort for some settler students who are similarly asked to consider what it means to be living in unceded land, etc. By heading to a dessert at the end, students were also given space to bond over treats (you can expect to see people nodding in agreement, or occasionally salivating). The moment of lightness at the end helps with the other moments that are more difficult. It also adds another line of connections, is a reminder of food, and other things that people have in common.


While we were using this exercise in the context of Indigenous Legal Methodology, I don’t think the utility of this exercise is limited to classes the directly engage questions of Indigenous Law, Land or Pedagogy. This exercise is a pretty good one for basic ‘getting to know you’ purposes in the context of any class (or indeed, any non-class context involving introductions). At least within the law school, we are constantly asking students to tell us where they are from, what degree they have, etc. Often, those demands are just to help us get to know each other. Starting from the point of view of ‘treaty’ is one way to do the same thing, while participating in acts of reconciliation by attempting to place treaty as the ground on which we all stand.

But there is much more to be said about this exercise.  Indeed, to introduce oneself by situating the legal order from which one comes is also a performance of law in many Indigenous legal orders. For example, this was articulated as a legal obligation in current work being done by ILRU in conjunction with the Secwepemc (Shuswap Nation Tribal Council) on Land and Resource Law. Beginning with an acknowledgment of the the territory you are in, and of the territory you come from is a way of acknowledging the existence of obligations and responsibilities attaching to both land and people who have taken on relationships to it and to each other.

In the act of introducing oneself to others through Treaty, then, one can make visible the legal obligations that one carries as a result both of territory of birth, and territory in which one finds oneself (and this is true even where one is not conscious of the obligations that they carry). Knowing the treaties makes it possible to acknowledge that one is a guest in another territory. In a perfect world, it also makes visible to non-indigenous Canadians the notion that they too (or, in my own case, I TOO) have treaty obligations. The big work is how we, as Settler Canadians, actualize or engage with those obligations, as we begin to re-consider the questions of what it means to be on treaty lands (and particularly what it means in contexts where treaty obligations have not been fulfilled).


  1. The TRC Final Report (Volume 1: Executive Summary) pp. 237 to 254. That section addresses:
    • UNDRIP as framework for reconciliation
      • Calls #43 and #44
    • The Doctrine of Discovery & Treaties
      • Calls #45 and #46
    • It also includes info re this link on treaties and Manitoba. Nice resource!
  1. Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2014).  For a helpful review of the book by Neil Vallance, see this link:
  2. Aimée Craft, Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishnabe Understanding of Treaty One (Purich Publishing, 2013).  For a short CBC report on the book, click here.