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Indigenous sewing group empowers and heals through fashion

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Therapy and healing can come from creating art. And that's what one group of intertribal women found as they worked through generational trauma that Native Americans experience. Kassidy Arena of member station Nebraska Public Media takes us to a special event.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please make sure that your phones are either on silent or off for the duration of the fashion show.

KASSIDY ARENA, BYLINE: The lights dim in the packed auditorium in downtown Omaha on December 3. The fashion show is about to begin. Backstage, the models are giddy with excitement. Kimberly Bedford is with her 4-year-old granddaughter, Odyssey. They are both Santee Sioux and are wearing traditional native T dresses. Bedford thought of her son, Odyssey's father, while she sewed them. He died in a car accident last year.

KIMBERLY BEDFORD: When I got involved with sewing, you know, it took my mind off things, you know? I mean, it didn't make that situation go away, but it helped, you know? Like, I'm glad I can do this with her because I know he would be glad.

ARENA: This fashion event showcasing Native American beadwork, ribbon skirts and jingle dresses...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRESS JINGLING)

ARENA: ...Was organized by a local group called Healing Ribbons. It's an intergenerational, intertribal group of women from Nebraska and Iowa who all come together to sew. Healing Ribbons co-founder Tami Buffalohead McGill started the program in memory of her sister, who froze to death five years ago.

TAMI BUFFALOHEAD MCGILL: Well, I discovered when I was at the sewing classes, I felt that. I felt for the first time that a boulder had been lifted off my shoulders.

ARENA: The women in this group are on their healing journey from centuries of historic trauma and more recent ones, too. Native American communities suffered a disproportionate loss of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Buffalohead McGill alone lost eight close family members. And she says many of the Native lives lost to the virus were culture-bearers for the community.

BUFFALOHEAD MCGILL: So all of a sudden, not only we lost people that we loved, but then we lost people that were the ones that taught us and instructed us and helped us learn who we are and give us that sense of identity and connection.

ARENA: And there's another cause of pain. In 2021, recovered records indicated nearly 100 children at a government-run Indigenous boarding school in the central region of the state had died there. The school closed in 1934. A series of digs have taken place on the former school's 640-acre grounds to find the children suspected to be buried there. Digs will continue this spring.

BUFFALOHEAD MCGILL: That retraumatized a lot of people, but it also started a dialogue.

ARENA: Historical traumas are seen as a soul wound for many Native American communities, according to Dr. Natalie Avalos, an assistant ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who is of Mexican Indigenous descent.

NATALIE AVALOS: Things like trauma are actually hereditary. They can change your DNA and that we can pass them on generationally.

ARENA: And, Avalos says, a potent way to heal from that trauma caused by generations of violence and marginalization is through participating in culturally relevant practices, like hosting a fashion show.

AVALOS: Doing these things together, it re-humanizes because it enables people to see the beauty of their own culture. It's a way of really taking back your power.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

(APPLAUSE)

ARENA: Kimberly Bedford hopes this show will teach her granddaughter to feel empowered by her culture.

KIMBERLY BEDFORD: I just want her to be proud of who she is, you know, when she says she's Indian or Native American, you know, that she knows a little bit about her history.

ARENA: Although the women in the fashion show agree it didn't make their traumas disappear, it helped to know they weren't alone, allowing for a new way to feel proud of their identity.

For NPR News, I'm Kassidy Arena, Nebraska.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTH AMERICANS' "RIVERS THAT YOU CANNOT SEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kassidy Arena