Formal Day at Bella Kulak’s school was the perfect opportunity to wear a ribbon skirt and celebrate her First Nation’s ancestry.
Instead, a non-Indigenous teacher’s aide criticized the 10-year-old’s clothing and angered thousands on social media.
It happened in Kamsack, Sask., last week, but her father Chris Kulak still has trouble talking about it.
“It makes me sick,” he said Tuesday, breaking down several times.
“You tell my daughter her traditional wear isn’t good enough and point at someone with a Walmart outfit on, like it’s something special. It is not.”
Kulak has seven daughters with his wife, Lana, a member of nearby Cote First Nation.
He said they are proud of their Indigenous heritage and culture.
“My daughter’s doing OK; she’s just a little bit overwhelmed,” he added via phone.
“She’s got people from Germany and Kansas and all over the world sending her money and sending her ribbon skirts.”
The Good Spirit School Division is looking into the incident, which has also sparked an investigation by its human resources department.
Kulak said an aide in the Grade 5 classroom pulled Bella aside and chastised her for not wearing the right thing.
“She said to the effect that, ‘Well, what you’re wearing doesn’t even match. And you should try and dress – this is nor formal attire – you should dress more formal like these girls’ and pointed out some white girls in the store-bought dresses.”
Her father said Bella was wearing a ribbon skirt gifted by her auntie. And, he added, all the other Indigenous girls in the school agreed in advance to wear their ribbon skirts on Formal Day.
“She’s shy and she likes to wear sweatpants and trap rabbits with her dad,” Kulak explained.
“She doesn’t want to wear dresses and everything. She feels like she’s on the spot. But we told her to be brave and wear her ribbon skirt.”
The aide “shamed” and “belittled” his daughter, Kulak said, noting Bella rushed home after school to take the skirt off right away.
“Just like the colonists did with ‘This is how you’re supposed to look, this is how you’re supposed to live’ – all these kind of attitudes,” said the dad who self-identifies as Indigenous.
“This was the same attitude.”
Kulak said he was angry when he called to “scold” the teacher. But division officials apologized – as did the aide and teacher – and want the family to be part of the solution going forward.
The way it was handled helped smoothe over the bad feelings, Kulak said.
“I don’t want the hate to come out; we have to live here and I don’t want any hurt to come to this teacher or her family. They don’t understand what they don’t know.”
It was his sister-in-law who posted about what happened on Facebook – a thread that has been shared thousands of times.
Commenters were upset, but many were supportive, too.
All across the Prairies, women responded by posting photos of themselves wearing ribbon skirts in support of their culture and traditions.
Some men even shared photos of themselves in their ribbon shirts.
Bella’s maternal grandmother, an Anishinaabe Elder, said she cried when she learned her granddaughter had her feelings hurt.
“She went to school very proud and came home sad,” she said in an interview.
Like Kulak, Stella Pelly wants to see this negative turned into a positive.
“Things happen for a reason,” she added. “Maybe they need to be educated.”
Bella’s parents agree.
“Reconciliation happens with dialogue,” said Kulak, who asked his wife and daughters to wear ribbon skirts and pose for photos he shared with APTN News.
“We want awareness. Not anger.”
With files from Priscilla Wolf