Historically, the Piipaash women wore an avxay (dress/skirt) made of inner willow bark. It was not until they were forced into boarding school that they would learn to sew, alter and adopt today’s “traditional” Piipaash dresses, which are the ones several Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community members made in the O’odham Piipaash Language Program dressmaking class in August. Today’s traditional dress concept was adopted from the Spanish-Mexican style, according to Cultural Resources Department Director Kelly Washington.
At the Piipaash dressmaking class, which met every Tuesday and Thursday during August, six to seven ladies came and learned the basics of shkwily’k (sewing) and how to make a Piipaash dress. Teaching the class were Community members Annette Ramirez and Leota Standing Elk.
Ramirez was not taught shkwily’k (sewing) in boarding school. Her mother, the late Dorothy Lewis, wanted her daughter to learn shkwily’k, so she entered her into a sewing club. She learned how to sew, and at age 14 she made her first Piipaash dress due to her father’s insistence that she learn her Piipaash culture.
Ramirez’ mother had told her that making the Piipaash avxay (dress) was a lot like the O’odham avxay Lewis would make, but the difference was that the Piipaash would put rickrack on the bottom, which, Ramirez said she learned later, represented water.
Ramirez father’s battled diabetes, and during his last years she learned how to make a Piipaash dress, which she wore to her father’s funeral. She threw it in the fire after his ceremony, which is tradition. This was one of the first dresses she remembers fondly, and those dress-making skills didn’t stop there; she continued to make traditional dresses for wakes, funerals and for her dance group.
To date, Ramirez said she has made hundreds of avxay. At one time she made well over 60 dresses for one person’s wake. So teaching others in the class to make avxay comes naturally to her.
Teaching the Students
Each student was responsible for choosing and picking up their fabric from the store and coming prepared to make their avxay.
Ramirez took all the ladies’ measurements, and within 20 minutes she had a custom-fit pattern for each student’s personalized avxay.
Ramirez helped the students with sewing aspects. Some students couldn’t see the concept of how patterns would make a shirt, but Ramirez knew what she was doing and in the end the shirt was complete.
Ramirez made sure to help them step-by-step in the shkwily’k (sewing) part. Not all the ladies were experts in sewing; some participants had never sewn before, and inserting the bobbin and threading the spool were new experiences for them.
During each class, most of the ladies were engrossed in their work, since making a dress is no easy task and the sewing machines would often cause problems and slow down the process.
Community member Petra Rodriquez attended the dressmaking class faithfully. She said, “It’s a lot of work; it’s not something you can just throw together. A dress takes a lot of material.” Rodriquez was one of the ladies who had difficulties with her sewing machine; one day she broke five needles while she was sewing her skirt.
Another regular who attended every session was Community member Valerie Manuel. Manuel came out to make a dress for one of her co-workers, who was unable to attend the classes due to surgery. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Manuel was the student to sit and wait patiently while all the other students needed the assistance of Ramirez. She would sit and wait for Ramirez to help them as she would try diligently to figure out her problem herself. During the class, Manuel made two dresses, one for her friend and the other for her daughter.
Keeping these traditions alive is vital to the Community. The SRPMIC Cultural Resources Department offers many opportunities to do this, such as this dressmaking class, the O’odham language immersion class and other classes.
“Some of the younger generation never had the opportunity to experience traditional activities in the home,” Washington said. “Others did have the opportunity, but didn’t learn [the traditional skills], for a variety of reasons.
Whatever the reason, the Cultural Resources Department offers classes, such as the dressmaking class, to provide that opportunity to learn. Of course, we also have experienced and knowledgeable people who take our classes and contribute to the overall experience. Everyone’s attendance is encouraged and appreciated.”