Joyce Smorong comes from a long line of beaders, but she says that her hands are too big for the fine traditional craft. However, when it comes to working with a sewing machine, Joyce knows her stuff.

Joyce sews traditional ribbon skirts and each one of her skirts tell a story. “We're all here to tell a story and whatever you have on your ribbon skirt tells your story,” explains Joyce. “Every ribbon skirt represents the person wearing it — every Nation and every person wants to be represented by what they hold dear to them.”

Ribbon skirts are traditionally worn by First Nations and Métis peoples and represent a direct connection to Mother Earth. They are typically worn for special occasions including ceremony, weddings, graduations and other important life events. 

In 2020, Isabella Kulak, a member of the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, was shamed for wearing a ribbon skirt to her elementary school. The response and support from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from across the country was palpable and resulted in National Ribbon Skirt Day, which is celebrated every year on January 4. 

Joyce, a Sixties Scoop survivor, was born and raised in Fort McMurray, Alta. She spent her childhood in foster care, which is where she was introduced to sewing. “I always ended up at Mrs. Wilson’s house,” she says. “She was a First Nations woman. She never let me in her sewing room, maybe because I was young, but I remember watching her sew from the door and taking it in.”

When Joyce’s daughter expressed an interest in learning traditional dancing, she called upon the skills she learned by watching Mrs. Wilson and taught herself to make jingle dresses and from there, ribbon skirts and other regalia.

“I have two hands and a machine,” she says. “The machine always wants to sew in a straight line, but you have to learn to manipulate it to put a story on your dress."

Along with the stories she sews on the ribbon skirts, she sews a note and a pouch of tobacco and sage into each skirt. She’s careful not to sew anything negative into the skirt. 

“I want to sew something positive, like a blessing, into them,” she says, adding that people should wear their ribbon skirts in a respectful way. “When you wear your skirt to ceremony or special events, respect the teachings. When you're wearing something that represents a Nation, you’re showing respect and honour to that Nation.”

A hand holding a transparent pouch of dried sage and tobacco.
Joyce sews medicines and a note to each ribbon skirt she makes.

Joyce returned to her birth mother’s community of Fort Chipewyan when she was 19 and honours the matriarchs in her life, including Mrs. Wilson, through sewing. “Growing up I didn't have a strong connection to where I was from, but I have reconnected with my mother’s family,” she says. “They talk about reconciliation and what it means to be proud of where you come from. As I become more connected with my family and my roots, I can say that they’ve nurtured me in tradition and made me who I am. Through them, I’ve found myself and where I belong. I am very proud of where I’m from.”

In the last two years, Joyce has sewed 250 ribbon skirts, including one worn by Jacquie Moore, Suncor’s General Counsel and Corporate Secretary and one most recently given to Arlene Strom, former Chief Sustainability Officer upon her retirement.

“I wear my skirt with pride and honour,” says Jacquie. “I met Joyce and first saw her ribbons skirts, which are works of art, at Treaty Days in Fort Chipewyan. When I was gifted a ribbon skirt by Suncor’s Indigenous and Community Relations and the Suncor Energy Foundation teams, I knew where it had come from and who made it. It’s a beautiful gift and I think of Joyce often.”

 Jacquie Moore’s ribbon skirt. It is designed with bright colours and tulips.
Jacquie Moore’s ribbon skirt, which was made by Joyce.