The power of skirts: From necessity to message carriers

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

SHIPROCK — The ribbon skirt worn by Diane Holyan caused people to compliment on its design and combination of colors as she walked in the atrium at Northern Navajo Medical Center.

The long skirt consisted of 20 ribbons sewn together, and the strips of fabric were illuminated by the light.

"It's meaningful to me because I can be able to proudly wear the skirt in the gourd (dancing) circle," Holyan said.

The significance of skirts in Native American communities and the makers behind the apparel were recognized at the hospital's Native Skirts Fashion Demo on Nov. 20.

Navajo women typically wear three-tiered skirts, based on designs worn by Hispanic women. Lately, ribbon skirts – based on the ceremonial skirts of the Northern Plains tribes – have become popular on the Navajo Nation.

Several women observed at the event wore ribbon skirts in colors that reflected personal style or paid tribute to individuals, such as military personnel.

That is the power of skirts, event organizers emphasized throughout the event. 

Roberta Diswood is a recreation specialist with the Health Promotion Disease Prevention program at the hospital and was among those who organized the event to recognize the apparel and to celebrate the ladies who sew in the local communities.

"Being a matrilineal society, it's good that we showcase what women are doing and to show the reasoning behind the ribbon skirt, the reasoning behind the traditional skirt," Diswood said.

Priscilla Smith learned to sew when she was about 10 years old and going to boarding school in Shiprock.

She recalled the first piece of clothing that she made was "a simple dress" for her eighth grade promotion.

Six local Navajo seamstresses presented their work at the Native Skirts Fashion Demo at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock on Nov. 20, 2019.

Now in her 60s, her skills for creating shirts, skirts and jackets, particularly those made from Pendleton blankets, are known in Shiprock.

"On my day off, I'm home sewing. When I get off work, I sew," Smith said.

The ladies' skills for sewing varied from intermediate to advanced.

Diswood was inspired to learn to sew because of her parents. Within the last year she has been making skirts for her nieces.

One of her nieces, Emily Phillips, 6, wore a skirt made from purple material with four ribbons in green and black at the bottom.

Mila Phillips, left, Emily Phillips, center, and Gabrielle Atene, right, participate in the Native Skirts Fashion Demo at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock on Nov. 20, 2019.

"It looks good," Phillips said.

Because of the color combination, Phillips calls it "the witch skirt," Diswood explained.

Skirts in Native American communities are more than fashion, they represent resilience, personality and are used to highlight social issues, organizers said.

During the event, a dark red skirt was displayed to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Iris Anthony made the clothing, which had red, yellow, white and black ribbons and depicted five Native American women with their backs turned.

"You don't see their faces. You don't see who they are. … They're looking up to the sun, they're looking up to the moon, they're looking up to the stars – hoping somebody will find them," Anthony said of the design.

A closeup of Diane Holyan at the Native Skirts Fashion Demo at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock on Nov. 20, 2019.

Anthony learned about ribbon skirts, and the messages they can carry, from family members who live in South Dakota and in Canada.

At the event, she showed several ribbon skirts at her booth.

"A lot of the teaching has a lot to do with how the ribbon goes together," Anthony said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

Support local journalism with a digital subscription to The Daily Times.