Congresswoman Deb Haaland
at the Presidential Inauguration. (Facebook)
When 19-year-old Bella Aiukli Cornell (Choctaw Nation) began sewing
about four years ago, she couldn't have anticipated that one of
her traditional ribbon skirts would be broadcast on televisions
across the world from the Presidential Inauguration.
Cornell, who introduced herself over the phone in her tribe's Choctaw
language, gifted a handmade ribbon skirt to New Mexican Rep. Deb
Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) back in 2019 during the congresswoman's
visit to Cornell's hometown in Oklahoma City.
Haaland was selected by President Joe Biden to serve as Secretary
of the Interior. Once confirmed by the Senate, she'll be the first
Native American to serve in a cabinet position in the history of
the United States.
Last week, Cornell saw the congresswoman wearing that same skirt
on national television. Haaland wore the garb, along with traditional
moccasins, to usher in the new president.
"I was so surprised," Cornell said. "I wasn't expecting her to
wear it. I was really excited and really happy. It made me proud."
Ribbon skirts originated with Plains Indian Tribes, when ribbon
was bartered through trade. Cornell's own tribe has a similar design,
called a Stomp Skirt, that uses less ribbon, and instead has a ruffle
at the bottom.
Cornell, a psychology major with a minor in Native American studies
at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, said the skirt's design can be
interpreted in a lot of different ways.
The pattern was yellow, like the New Mexican flag, and was embroidered
with a cross hatching design.
"Some say it looks like stars, some say it looks like the four
directions," Cornell said. Some of it was intentional, she said,
but she's also experimenting. "I'm just kind of having fun with
it and looking around me, like the world and stuff, to find colors
because there's inspiration in just about everything."
Cornell sells her handmade skirts on Instagram through her brand
Aiukli Designs. She limits the skirts to Indigenous customers only,
to avoid cultural appropriation, but sells beaded earrings to any
For Cornell, this isn't the first time Indigenous fashion has garnered
her national attention. In 2018, Teen Vogue featured her in an article
for her statement red prom dress bringing awareness to the crisis
of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The U.S. Department of
Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that
are more than 10 times the national average.
Bella Aiukli Cornell's
prom dress on display in the "Girlhood" exhibit
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
(Bella Aiukli Cornell)
The dress, made by Crow designer Della Bighair-Stump of Hardin,
Mont., now sits in the "Girlhood" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National
Museum of American History. Museum staff contacted Cornell after
her prom and asked her if she'd be willing to donate it.
"I donated it to the Smithsonian for the sole purpose of raising
awareness of what's going on right now," she said.
Bella Aiukli Cornell,
right, in her prom dress that aims to bring awareness to the
crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. (Bella Aiukli
Cornell, who says she's been involved in advocacy work for Native
communities since she was a child, said that Haaland's nomination
represents hope for the future for Indian Country.
"For so long, Indigenous people haven't had enough representation
in policy work and in the media, and in pretty much every field
you can think about," she said. "And sometimes the representation
that we have had isn't always entirely accurate for us. So I think
this is a huge step in the right direction for us as a people. It
makes me proud to be Indigenous whenever I see people like (Haaland)
doing good work for our community. It just makes me really hopeful
for the future."