Sewing Traditional Regalia with a Contemporary Flare

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015 



Melissa Widner (White Earth) Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation)

Melissa Widner (White Earth)
Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation)

Set against the backdrop of a grove outside Gizhiigin Arts Incubator, Melissa Widner (White Earth) posed in her handcrafted ribbon skirt. The grove’s rich green grass and trees allowed the skirt’s vibrant colors — yellows, reds, blues — to pop during the sunny day on the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation in northwestern Minnesota this summer.

Melissa’s daughter, Courtney Olsen (Ojibwe), soon joined the fun with smiles and laughter. Courtney wore a ribbon skirt, as well, that she made.

Courtney and her sister, Megan Bunker Olson (Ojibwe), had nominated their mother, Melissa, for First Peoples Fund’s Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award (CSA). 

“Growing up I would attend ceremonies and pow wows with my mom,” Courtney says. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was that she would handcraft me and my sisters’ regalia and beadwork. She raised me with our traditional ways and has taught me so much, not only about regalia, but about beadwork, our Ojibwe language, ceremonies, pow wows, and our traditional foods.”

The CSA not only gave Courtney and Megan the opportunity to acknowledge their mother’s contributions to the community, but to have a moment to celebrate everything they had learned from her. Continuing to showcase their handcrafted ribbon skirts, Courtney and her mother posed for the event photographer, Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribe of the Colville Indian Reservation) who worked hard to capture the heart of Melissa’s art form — sewing for her community.

“I look at fabric, colors, styles, designs and immediately in my mind I put together a unique piece,” Melissa says. “I oftentimes get so inspired I sit for hours and days just sewing.” 

She learned to sew from her grandmother, whose techniques and admonishments keep Melissa on the right path. 

“My favorite materials are neons, bright patterns, and fun colors,” she says, “but in keeping with my grandmother’s teaching, I make sure the regalia I create also is traditional in cut, pattern, and style. My grandmother makes inward of 100 ceremonial quilts each year that are taken to our big drum ceremony in our village. Although I love the contemporary flair, my grandmother reminds me of the traditional side, and that I must incorporate these things into my work.”

Courtney Olsen (Ojibwe) and her mother, CSA Honoree Melissa Widner (White Earth). Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

Courtney Olsen (Ojibwe) and her mother, CSA Honoree Melissa Widner (White Earth).
Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

After the photoshoot in the grove, Melissa and Courtney went inside Gizhiigin Arts Incubator where the CSA honoring was held. Roxanne took more shots with the family around the displays of Melissa’s fabric art pieces, and of the people gathered to celebrate Melissa.

“The honoring meant a lot because my community showed up,” Melissa says. “I’m usually a quiet type. Being up front and center is really not my thing, but I was honored.”

Opwanganse (Puggy) Goodwin, who sang an honor song for Melissa. Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

Opwanganse (Puggy) Goodwin, who sang an honor song for Melissa.
Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

Melissa’s colleagues, childhood friends, current students, and First Peoples Fund (FPF) staff sat in a circle in the open space. One of the youth, Opwaganse (Puggy) Goodwin, a close family friend, sang an honor song for Melissa.

“He’s doing so many great things in our community,” she says. “He’s an inspiring young leader.”

“It’s so nice to see our youth stepping up and being able to sing honoring songs and tribal songs,” Courtney says, “and participate in ceremony the way he does.” 

After the honor song, people impacted by Melissa’s work began sharing stories and offering words of praise. Taught by her grandmother, Melissa has been sewing and beading for 30 years.

“Everyone that knows her knows they can reach out to her, and she will help them,” Courtney says. “She is efficient and selfless. I can genuinely say, as one of her seven children, that she has done everything she can for us, and our community. She is a true Anishinaabe woman.”

Melissa teaches a weekly class alongside her sister, who is the Domestic Violence Culture Coordinator. 

“As a Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist, I have incorporated regalia making for those in need, hurting, bored, learning, lost, and in recovery,” Melissa says. “I always try to have an elder in each class, and my grandmother often volunteers her time.”

One project very close to Melissa’s heart is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) sewing class she started at Gizhiigin. While getting ready for an MMIW march one day, she sat down at her sewing machine to cut a new ribbon skirt.

Melissa’s “MMIW Ribbon Skirt” - A ribbon skirt created to honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, an epidemic that has gained increased awareness over the last decade.

Melissa’s “MMIW Ribbon Skirt” - A ribbon skirt created to honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, an epidemic that has gained increased awareness over the last decade.

“As I started sewing and cutting and creating this piece, I thought, ‘wow, this skirt is beautiful. What could I add to it to represent the MMIW?’” she explains. “I cut a tiny red dress appliqué piece out, sat and looked at it for a long time and finally stitched it on my skirt. The emotions were overwhelming.”

At the time, there was an MMIW exhibit in the gallery at Gizhiigin. On the last day of the exhibition, Melissa brought her skirt to show in a class. The emotional response launched the MMIW Skirt class she now teaches in addition to her other community work.

“We were really attracted to her commitment to community,” says Amber Hoy, First Peoples Fund’s Program Manager of Fellowships, who attended the honoring. “Melissa often referred to her grandmother, who couldn’t be there that day. She kept directing the conversation back to giving praise to and uplifting the elders who came before her.”

The time came to wrap Melissa in her CSA star quilt. Melissa’s love of bright colors was incorporated into her custom-made quilt to celebrate her dedication.

FPF President, Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota) and FPF Fellowship Program Manager, Amber Hoy, wrap Melissa in a star quilt.  Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

FPF President, Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota) and FPF Fellowship Program Manager, Amber Hoy, wrap Melissa in a star quilt.
Photo by Roxanne Best (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

“Community Spirit Awardees are the unsung heroes,” Amber says. “Younger kids might not recognize their importance. We’re traveling there to affirm the importance of their work, of keeping these ancestral traditions and practices alive.”

“I enjoyed hearing what everyone had to say about my mom,” Courtney says. “I’ve known her my whole life as my mom, but to hear how other people view her and how they have such high opinions of her was special. It was so nice to see all that love coming from different directions.”