Nizhoni Ward, an eighth-grader at James Hart School in Homewood, stands out immediately from her peers.
Her commitment to advocacy is striking, her passion palpable. While many 13-year-olds are obsessed with social media and their social life, Nizhoni is raising awareness to combat the erasure of indigenous people.
“I’m glad that I have the knowledge to stand up for myself when I need to and educate others,” she said. “Being an indigenous youth means using my voice and standing up for what I believe in.”
Nizhoni is one-half Navajo, one quarter Choctaw and one quarter Caucasian. She was born in Tuba City, Arizona but now lives in Homewood.
Recently crowned Junior Miss Indian Chicago for the second year in a row, Nizhoni founded The Nizhoni Hozho Project after spending a semester with her family on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City.
There, in the dry, cracked earth of Tuba City, the teen discovered a love of her culture and a way to use her passion to affect change.
Nizhoni, guided by her mother and grandmother, began designing and sewing clothing at the age of four. She draws on her prodigal talent to realize her vision for her peers at Tuba City Boarding School.
In her six months there, she found that some students longed for the traditional wear that her grandmother had sewn for her. Naturally, she set out to make a change, much like her grandmother did in the days when she sewed clothes for the community.
“My friends in the dorms would compliment my skirt and outfit, and ask who made it. I would say my grandma,” Nizhoni recalls. “They would say things like ‘Oh, I wish my mom or my grandma knew how to sew, or that they made dresses for me.’ I would literally want to give them the outfit that I had on. My grandma made so many outfits for me. When I heard that, I just wanted to give some away.”
Today, she’s doing just that with the Nizhoni Hozho Project.
“My mission is to make sure all of the residential girls attending schools on the reservations receive a handmade ribbon skirt, and proudly wear it to social gatherings and events,” Nizhoni said. She feels what she is doing is a calling from God. “I am a part of nonprofit organizations, but I yearned for my own project. It took real life experience for me to appreciate what I'm doing now."
Her goal is to make the traditional ribbon skirts for Native American girls. A ribbon skirt is a long skirt decorated with colorful ribbons on the lower portion of the skirt. Some have very intricate patterns. Historical records show the ribbon skirt dates back to the early 1800s.
There’s something about the act of sewing that soothes the teenager, as well.
"It's just me, the needle, the material and my imagination. With sewing there is this peacefulness I enjoy. I’m the kind of person who needs to be focused on something, or I’ll start overthinking,” she said.
Nizhoni aspires to earn a degree from Harvard Law School, and pursue a career serving as an environmental lawyer in indigenous nations, or as a family attorney. Today, her 4.0 GPA earns her a place in the National Junior Honor Society. For now, her advocacy focus remains on sewing ribbon skirts for indigenous students of the Navajo Nation and beyond.
Nizhoni is leading three ribbon skirt workshops this month at the American Indian Center in Chicago. Skirts made in the workshops can be donated to the Nizhoni Hozho Project to help reach the goal of 1,000 ribbon skirts by the end of the school year. Donations to the online fundraiser will be used to help purchase materials needed to make ribbon skirts for this project.
The workshops are Nov. 13, 19 and 26. More information is available at the American Indian Center at www.aicchicago.org.