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 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 (https://americanhistory.si.edu/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
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
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