The whir of a sewing machine is the sound of community coming together at Caroline Robins Community School.
For three weeks this spring, a group of eight students and 11 staff of varying cultural backgrounds gathered each day after school to learn about the importance of ribbon skirts and sew their own skirt with the guidance of Traditional Knowledge Keeper kohkom (grandmother) Judy Greyeyes.
The project was one aspect of kohkom Judy's eight-week residency at Caroline Robins where she was embedded in the school community to share her knowledge and experiences with students and staff.
"One of our school goals was student engagement, as well as a commitment as a staff to learn throughout the year about anti-oppressive/anti-racist concepts and practices toward an understanding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action," said vice principal Dana Babey, who worked with kohkom Judy and community coordinator Melissa Cruz to organize the opportunity.
The goal was to increase student engagement, increase understanding of Indigenous culture specific to kohkom Judy's teachings, and offer an opportunity to feel connected to the school.
"We wanted to offer this ribbon skirt project to those students who had a desire to learn about it", explained kohkom Judy. "Staff and students agreed to come and share time with each other, working together towards common goals, to learn teachings about the traditional skirt and the skills to sew one for themselves."
Students chose to participate for variety of reasons. Some took part in order to build a connection to their culture. Others because of their relationship to kohkom Judy or the staff members involved, or to simply be with other students. Learning how to sew inspired others.
"I learned how creative and fun making a ribbon skirt is with kohkom Judy," said Grade 7 student Cassidy Dust. "Judy taught me about the ribbon skirt and what it represents."
For Violet Ottenbreit, working alongside and sharing the experience and learning with students with other classes was positive. "I would totally recommend this to other students. It was so fun, and you end up with a ribbon skirt that you made yourself."
Learning more about her mother's culture was important for Jada Lipinski, along with the chance to learn how to sew, a skill she hopes to use again and to share with family.
Kohkom Judy's residency provided the chance to develop relationships. Compliments and questions about the ribbon skirts she wore, along with her desire to share her teachings about the cultural meaning of skirts, meant the project was a perfect opportunity for students and staff to learn and honour history and cultural teachings.
Middle years' teacher Mathew Fiedelleck's desire to continue learning alongside kohkom Judy saw him create a ribbon skirt, which he gifted to his wife.
"Many staff and students, including myself, were intrigued with kohkum Judy's ribbon skirts and were so excited for the opportunity to learn how to sew one," he said. "She began our first ribbon skirt session with a smudge, teaching us the importance of giving thanks for the opportunity to be together while preparing the materials as well as ourselves in a good way."
Learning alongside each other created a sense of community among students and staff. Students who picked up certain skills quicker than others provided support to help others who needed encouragement or coaching. Staff members who had sewn in the past also offered help. Students chose the fabric for their skirt and all materials were provided so the program was accessible to every student who had permission to attend.
Babey said staff members, both educational assistants and teachers, had an opportunity to work closely with students they had never met or had not yet built a relationship. Students and staff came together in a collaborative and supportive space to learn, laugh, and grow.
"Laughter," kohkom Judy shared, "is one of the biggest parts of our culture. We need to laugh, to heal, expressed."
Fiedelleck said the project exemplified students being known, valued, and believed in.
"Relationships were strengthened as students and staff worked together every day, he said. "Students who wanted to gain teachings and sew skirts with Judy were engaged in the process. They felt a sense of belonging to a group that offered a safe, supportive, and collaborative space."
The impact of the project was felt beyond the school. Parents reported how their children came home with stories to share or jumped out of bed in the morning in order to be ready for sewing sessions held before the school day started.
"One parent noted their child, who was disengaging from communicating at home and retreating to her room, had found a new sense of excitement and purpose. She couldn't wait to come home after her sewing session and explain the progress she had made on her skirt that day," Babey said.
Once complete, each person wore their skirt for a school-wide assembly that showcased the learning and significance of skirts from Kohkom Judy's teachings. The sense of pride students felt when they were given the opportunity to share their efforts with the rest of the school was heartwarming.
"Gratitude was a big take away from the project. Students and staff were so grateful to have this time to come together to learn, laugh and grow."