By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When Nancy Lafleur was a little girl, she and her grandmother would drive out to a lake in northern Saskatchewan to watch the sun come up.

“As we’d sit there waiting for the sun, I’d skip stones into the lake,” she recalls. “And one day, my grandmother told me, ‘Every time you throw one of those stones in the lake, you change the whole landscape.’ ”

That memory has stayed with Lafleur ever since, guiding her as she became a storyteller as well as a teacher on her own First Nation at Lac La Ronge — and now, in her 50s, as an artist.

For the past six years, Lafleur has been making a splash with her “story skirts” — intricate, layered designs where the ribbons and appliqué help her tell a vibrant narrative.

“The story skirt is a compliment to the work I’ve done with storytelling,” she says. “I can wear a garment that shares who I am as an Indigenous person.”

She hopes her skirts will inspire people to ask questions, make connections and learn something new.

“I have art pieces that hang on my wall, and nobody gets to see them but me,” she says. “But to wear a skirt, that arouses curiosity. Sometimes strangers will come up to me and say, ‘That’s a really nice skirt,’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, this is a story about …’ ”

Lafleur didn’t grow up wearing ribbon skirts. As a child in the north, she was more likely wearing moosehide — but she was drawn to the idea as an adult.

She sewed her first skirt just before her daughter’s wedding, which took place in Norway.

“Going to Europe — the home of settler Canada — intrigued my enthusiasm to display my culture as an Indigenous woman in this country we call Canada,” Lafleur says. “So I decided that I would make a skirt to honour my family.

“So I did my skirt with a hawk and four feathers, which symbolized my husband, myself and our two children, with the hawk as our protector and our guide.”

Her second skirt, with a design of trees in different colours, represented her daughter’s “colourful life” of mountain-climbing and living all over the world.

Since then, she hasn’t stopped sewing.

“Finally finding art so late in life, I always think I wish I would have found it 30 or 40 years ago,” she says. “How would it have changed my life? Would I be designing clothes somewhere else? But I was meant to be where I am, definitely, because now I have my children and my grandchildren.”

Though Lafleur doesn’t do commissions — she tried that, but didn’t enjoy it — she is often inspired by friends and loved ones, especially at special moments in their lives.

Shona Tretiak has been friends with Lafleur for many years, and greatly admires her dedication to everything she sets her mind to.

“Nancy is outgoing, she’s eccentric, she’s talented, she’s skilled,” says Tretiak. “She is all of those good things. She’s compassionate. She’s a writer. She’s an artist. She is a fabulous teacher and a most wonderful friend.

“When she gets going, it’s like she can’t stop until she’s finished.”

Tretiak recently got married and, when she walked down the aisle, it was in one of Lafleur’s skirts which told a story about her beloved and dearly missed mother.

“When my kids would bring me roses, they would include blue roses, which are memory roses, apparently,” Tretiak says. “They always said that was for my mom, their grandma. So Nancy sewed on roses — she put rose details on my skirt — and she hemmed the bottom with small rose beads.

“That way, my mom was with me.”

Some skirts, like the one honouring Tretiak’s mother, focus on specific people or a specific moment. Others — like ‘Generations of Healers,’ one of Lafleur’s favourites — tell broader, generation-spanning stories.

“The skirt has three women, and their hair is all braided together,” Lafleur says. “One woman represents the past generations of healers that have given us our strength and resiliency. The middle woman represents women now, who are continuing this generation of healing for the purpose of the future — the third woman.”

Lafleur doesn’t just use her skirts to celebrate Indigenous women through her sewn stories. She wants to celebrate, uplift and honour Indigenous women in every way she can.

For the past three years, she has organized a scholarship for an Indigenous woman who has shown great resilience in completing her higher education.

“I am a child of trauma,” says Lafleur, who has now been teaching for nearly 30 years and is beginning her Ph.D this fall. “And of course, you always hear, ‘You made good choices’ and, sure, but sometimes it’s not about the choices.

“Sometimes it’s about the supports I had around me, and the resiliency in me that has helped and guided me to the life I have now.”

Every year, Lafleur honours a woman who shares a similar story. She raises a few hundred dollars, and also creates a custom story skirt for the scholarship recipient.

“This year, it actually made the difference in the young woman’s life as to whether she was able to attend her convocation or not,” she says. “For me, it’s a few hundred dollars and a skirt. But when I presented her with her money, she told me, ‘Now I have the gas money to go to my convocation. And I have something to wear.’

“And to have her children watch her walk down that stage … was powerful.”

Lafleur also frequently raffles off her skirts to support the causes she cares about. That includes starting a “breakfast bistro” at her school, where she teaches with the Northern Saskatchewan Indigenous Teacher Education Program, so that students never have to go hungry.

“Food sovereignty is a real issue for university students on fixed budgets,” she notes. “So we started our little breakfast bistro, and we keep our little deepfreeze full of bagels and different things like that.

“It all started with a fundraiser and a skirt, and now it’s grown to where we have emergency food to help students make it through and be successful.”

Her skirts have also helped the La Ronge long-term care home and North Sask Special Needs pay for Christmas activities and presents.

When a grandmother in her community lost her home in a fire, Lafleur auctioned off her entire collection of skirts to help her get back on her feet — then started sewing again.

“I’ve been taught by my Elders that we’re given these beautiful gifts when we’re visiting this Earth, but those gifts are not meant for us to hoard for self-benefit,” she says. “And so, with my skirts, I do these fundraisers.

“After all, at the end of the day, this is what we leave behind. I can have all the money in the world, and nobody’s going to know me for that.

“They’ll know me for the stories, and what I’ve shared with others.”

Lafleur says when she reflects on her life — everything she’s done, and everything she still wants to do — she often goes back to that morning with her grandmother at the lake, when she learned about her power to change the landscape.

“Sometimes, I think the things I do are just tiny,” she says. “Just a little drop in the bucket.

“But sometimes that drop in the bucket becomes a wave.”

(Top Photo: Nancy Lafleur tells the story of her first skirt, which includes four leaves to symbolize the four members of her family. Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Michelle Berg.)