December 4, 2022

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Who was wearing the colorful ribbon skirt during the State of the Union

Politics

The skirt is a traditional piece of Native American clothing.

Melissa Isaac was seated behind Jill Biden at the State of the Union. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

If you’re a lover of fashion, bright colors, or an indigenous person, you probably noticed a beautiful, colorful skirt that someone sitting behind Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova and First Lady Jill Biden was wearing during President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address.

While some might have assumed the skirt was Ukrainian based on the proximity to the Ukrainian ambassador, the skirt is in fact a traditional piece of Native American clothing called a ribbon skirt.

The woman wearing the skirt is Melissa Isaac, of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. She is the head of the Indigenous Education Initiative at the Michigan Department of Education and was the personal guest of Jill Biden.

According to The Detroit Free Press, Isaac is a former elementary school teacher who was instrumental in securing a $9 million federal grant for indigenous schools in Michigan to help them address the mental health needs of their school communities.

She reportedly first met with Jill Biden in October 2021.

According to The Lakota Times, ribbons adorning Native American clothing go back 400 years.

“Silk ribbons, brought to North America by European traders, inspired a new, uniquely Native American art form,” The Lakota Times wrote.

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Though ribbon skirts were being made as early as the 1600s, The Lakota Times wrote, they really began to pick up popularity among indigenous tribes across the North American continent at the beginning of the 19th century and peaked towards the latter half of the same century.

Tribes who traded furs with the French are most known for their ribbon work, The Lakota Times wrote. This includes tribes such as the Kickapoo, Mesquakie, Miami, Odawa, Ojibwa, Osage, Otoe-Missouria, Potawatomi, and Quapaw.

The Lakota Times wrote that at first, the ribbons were sewn on the edges of cloth and replaced painted lines on pelt clothing and blankets. But by the end of the 18th century, designs with ribbons became much more intricate.

Ribbon skirts have experienced a resurgence in popularity since the 1970s, coinciding with a surge in indigenous activism and cultural reclaiming, The Lakota Times wrote.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first-ever indigenous person to fill that position, has also been seen wearing a ribbon skirt at government functions, having worn one to her swearing in ceremony.

Many indigenous people — and fashion fans — on Twitter were excited to see the ribbon skirt on national television.