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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Isabella Cornell Makes History Twice With Her Designs
by Shelia Kirven - Biskinik
Isabella "Bella" Aiukli Cornell models the dress she had designed for MMIW. The dress now resides in the Smithsonian. ( Photo by Doug Hoke )

Most people do not get to see themselves make history in their own lifetime, especially not twice and by the age of 22, but that is exactly what Isabella Aiukli Cornell has done, all in the name of advocating for Indigenous women. Born and raised in Oklahoma City, this proud Choctaw woman has seen her specially designed prom dress become a permanent display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and a ribbon skirt she designed and made was worn to the 2021 U.S. Presidential Inauguration by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

Cornell is a strong advocate and activist for Indigenous women's causes. "There have been so many hardships that have been coming across our community for Indigenous women, and all these different issues like MMIW have been impacting us so much. How I see it is there is always a need in the community for something, and I think that we should really take it upon ourselves as young people, and as just relatives in the community to stand up and look out for each other, because that is how we become good relatives, by looking out for those in our community who need help. All these different issues that have come up have really been motivating me to get out
and help them as much as I can."

Cornell said that her mother has had a huge influence on her, teaching her to be a strong Choctaw woman.

"She is very involved in the community. It's what I grew up around. She is always going to all these different kinds of events, whether a panel, a rally or some community event. We were always there, and we were always doing some kind of work with that," explained Cornell.

Cornell said that growing up, she participated in several different political events, even bringing it into her school through school projects she would do.

"It was such an integral part of my life and my identity as an Indigenous woman. It was something that was applicable to just about anything in my life and so I wanted to incorporate it into my everyday life as much as I could because I love my culture. I think it's just such an integral part of who I am. Just growing up around that is what influenced my involvement," said Cornell.

She also has a powerful bond and relationship with her grandparents.

"I did grow up traditionally, and I would say that it was because of my culture that was able to get me involved in things because it was impacting our people."

As a family participating in advocacy events, one of her most memorable experiences was a trip to Washington, D.C. to speak to the Secretary of Education in 2015 with a group of Native youth from all different tribal nations across the country. She and her sister attended and were able to talk about what it was like being Indigenous students, opening up about some of the hardships in the classroom and what they would like to see different in the educational system. Though it was work, it was enjoyable, and one of the fun events that came with the experience was getting to go bowling in the White House.

It was 2018 when Cornell was able to make history with her advocacy efforts. While deciding what to wear to her prom, she decided to have a dress designed especially with a cause close to her heart, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Being a close follower of Della Bighair, a Crow designer (Designs by Della) from Montana, Cornell reached out to Bighair to seek her assistance with the design. Cornell had previously modeled some of Bighair's designs in a few shows (Native Fashion in the City) in Denver, Colorado. Cornell has modeled since she was 12 and even has a billboard with her face on it in Oklahoma City. She decided it was something designed by Bighair that she wanted to wear to prom with colors and design elements that brought attention to MMIW. Bighair came up with a dress for Cornell with both Choctaw and Crow elements on the bodice, with the Choctaw designs being diamonds.

"It turned out really amazing. It's something that was really special to me" Cornell said.

She expected just to wear the dress for one night, knowing what it meant to her and her family. Over time, however, Cornell said it started getting more attention, and people started writing articles about it. Teen Vogue covered it, and Cornell said she was very surprised. It was then that she remembered that was the whole mission of the dress, to create awareness and dialogue about the issue. More news sources came forward seeking to cover the dress, and Cornell said that eventually, the Smithsonian contacted her and her mother, wanting to talk to them about donating it to their exhibit Girlhood ( The dress was donated, and it will reside with the museum in their permanent collection. The exhibit will go on a national tour in 2023. Though Cornell stated it was sad to see the dress go, she was happier "knowing people will be able to educate themselves and be aware of the issue, because that's what is more important to me."

Cornell said she plans to go see the dress on exhibit, and that she and the designer are very excited.

"It was a huge honor for both of us," said Cornell.

When asked why MMIW is so close to her heart, Cornell said, "It's personal because it impacts almost every Indigenous family. The epidemic of violence has been perpetrated against Indigenous women. We go missing more than ten times the national average, and we barely get attention for it. We don't get amber alerts. We don't get as much press and coverage about these issues as we need to. That's why I think it's so important to talk about it because awareness is the first step that happens. If other people aren't going to talk about it, it's
important that we do."

Cornell's mother, Sarah, and grandmother, Tami Adams, taught her beadwork and how to sew when she was growing up. She said she also learned a lot by going to events at the Choctaw Tribal Alliance in Oklahoma City.

That is how she came to begin her business, Aiukli Designs which sells beadwork and ribbon skits. She says her business has been well received and is expanding. Cornell's business has been growing since Sec. of Interior Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, was seen wearing her skirt design earlier this year at the U.S. Presidential Inauguration.

"I was super excited to see her wearing the ribbon skirt I made and gifted her a few years ago when she was in Oklahoma City. It means a lot to see her wearing my design," Cornell said.

Haaland was seen wearing the skirt in Vogue Magazine and other major news outlets. Talking about how the business has been since that, Cornell said, "Business is booming!"

She said she has gotten a lot more followers on social media since that time and more media attention.

Cornell said the ribbon skirt came traditionally from Plains tribes who traded with settlers for ribbons. Over time, the skirt was created.

Cornell said she was given permission to sell the ribbon skirts from her mentor, as she said she didn't want to take from other cultures and profit from it, and was advised that the ribbon skirt is now becoming a lot like the traditional shawl, that many Native women are seen wearing them at tribal gatherings.

"It doesn't belong to just one tribe. It's something we can all have in common and are all able to wear because it stands for something a lot bigger than just a skirt. I see it as a representation. When you see an Indigenous woman walk into a room wearing a skirt, she is representing herself in a good way. She is representing herself, her community, her family and her nation in a good way," Cornell explained.

Cornell is attending college in Colorado, studying Psychology and Native American Studies. She plans to follow through until she has a Ph.D. Her future plans are to provide counseling services to Indigenous youth from a more Indigenous perspective. She says she is grateful for the scholarships she has received through Choctaw Nation.

Speaking to young people who may want to follow in her footsteps, Cornell said, "Don't be afraid to start stepping into positions of leadership. Don't be afraid to start using your voice. Remember, you have an obligation to your people to be a good relative and to look out for people who need help. So always remember to use your voice in a good way, represent yourself in a good way and always remember that you have the prayers and the love of all your ancestors with you all the time." She went on to say, "Just remember who you came from, these matrilineal societies that we were a part of once ago. Don't be afraid to step into these roles of leadership because we are matriarchs, and it's important that we remember that in ourselves, and always just remember your strengths."

Cornell is the daughter of Sarah (Adams) and Dustin Cornell and the older sister of Gabby Cornell.

You can follow Cornell's designs on Instagram at Aiukli Designs.

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