Fort Lewis College student Bella Aiukli Cornell almost couldn’t believe the sight she saw on Inauguration Day.
It wasn’t so much the changing of the guard as President Joe Biden took his oath to become the U.S.’s 46th president. No.
Instead, what took Cornell aback was a photo of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland wearing the traditional ribbon skirt Cornell had sewn and given to the congresswoman when the two met in 2019.
“It was really surprising,” Cornell said. “Seeing her wear that on such an important day, it made me happy she was representing us well.”
Cornell, 19, of the Choctaw Nation first met Haaland in February 2019 when she came to Oklahoma City for an event. That’s when Cornell gave Haaland the traditional ribbon skirt.
Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo tribe was appointed by Biden to serve as secretary of the Interior Department. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to serve in that position in the history of the U.S.
“I had been admiring her for a long time, ever since she started stepping into positions of leadership,” Cornell said. “And I wanted to give her that because that’s something we do when we admire someone in our culture.”
The Plains Indian Tribes first created the ribbon skirt, which was traded for other goods. But other tribes have similar clothing, and over the years, the skirts have evolved and adapted as other Native people make different interpretations.
“They bring awareness,” Cornell said. “When you see an Indigenous woman walk into a room (wearing a ribbon skirt), she’s represented in a good way. They’re very symbolic for us.”
Cornell learned to sew when she was 16 years old from her mother and grandmother, and ever since, has been learning and extending her knowledge about the pieces she makes.
Cornell even started her own company to sell her creations, called Aiukli Designs. Ribbon skirts are reserved for sale only to Native people, but Cornell’s beaded earrings are available to anyone.
Cornell’s art has made headlines in the past.
An article in Teen Vogue in 2018 put Cornell in the spotlight after she wore a red prom dress to bring awareness to the issue of Indigenous woman who go missing or are murdered.
“Prom was coming up, and I wanted to bring representation to my culture,” Cornell said.
Cornell said she contacted the fashion designer Della Bighair-Stump to come up with the dress idea together. Bighair-Stump is an enrolled member of the Crow tribe in Montana.
Not long after prom, however, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History contacted Cornell asking if the museum could use the dress for its “Girlhood” exhibit.
Cornell, though, was hit with mixed emotions.
She was incredibly excited to bring more awareness to the issue, but at the same time, Indigenous people have conflicting relationships with these types of museums, which historically stole and exploited items from tribes.
So, Cornell sought the advice of her community. And ultimately, she decided to donate it. The dress is on display to this day.
“I was willing to donate it for the sole intention of spreading awareness (about missing or murdered Native women),” she said. “It’s not just a dress for one night anymore, now it means something a lot bigger.”
Cornell is a sophomore at Fort Lewis College, drawn to Southwest Colorado for its scenery and the good educational programs in her field.
Cornell is majoring in psychology, with a minor in Native American studies. After college, she intends to return to her tribe and provide counseling services to youths in need.
“There’s a big lack of mental health services, for youths specifically,” she said. “That’s what I want to do.”
An earlier version of this story included photo captions that incorrectly said a red prom dress on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History was made by Bella Aiukli Cornell. It is the work of fashion designer Della Bighair-Stump.