Archive for January, 2018

When I first started teaching my Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course two years ago, I read a great deal about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Canada. The Red Dress Project further raised my awareness, and then the various documentaries that I watched to learn more also helped. I knew the statistics were staggering and brutal. For a few years now, I have heard of the “Walking with Our Sisters” exhibition, so when I heard it was coming to Sudbury, I was keen to see it. I didn’t know, though, that it would break me open as it did.

When you first walk into the eight-point star lodge, which has been set up inside the McEwen School for Architecture downtown, on Elm Street, you think of how impressive it is, with various pathways that are fashioned on a red floor so that you are guided around each series of moccasin tops (or ‘vamps’). They are set out in colour coded blocks, so the reds are on their own and the blues and greens are somewhere else. It feels fluid, in this way, in how the colours are like waves. The eight points of the star shape represent the Seven Grandfather Teachings of honesty, truth, humility, love, wisdom, courage, and respect. The eighth point of the star is symbolic of how we relate, as humans, to the Creator.

There are over 1,810 unfinished sets of moccasin vamps, beaded and decorated by the loved ones and friends of those women who have disappeared or been murdered across Canada. This is, my friend Charmaine told me, only about one-tenth the number of the estimated lives lost. Not everyone saw the initial call to send in beaded vamps back in 2012, when the call was put out via Facebook. Christi Belcourt was at the head of that call, and this exhibit has a great deal to do with her work as an artist and activist.

Walking through the installation today, I noticed that some families only chose to include one, rather than two, to show the symbolism of a woman’s life that was unfinished, cut in half. You journey through the installation on a path that is a symbol for a person’s life. It curves, bends, circles around, and sometimes comes to a sharper point. You walk without shoes, and you stop to see the various designs, each one representing a woman’s particular spirit.

And then there are the children’s vamps. They are not included in this exhibition, but there are hundreds, and they represent the children who died in residential schools across Canada. They were often buried in unmarked graves, discarded without thought or worry. One banner, with smaller vamps decorated and then attached, was created by students at White Pine Collegiate in Sault Ste. Marie. It serves to remember the children who lived and died in Shingwauk Residential School in the Sault. It closed in 1970.

You carry tobacco with you as you go, and there is cedar carefully attached to walls around the open space of the room.  Then you walk. You need to take your time, to not let yourself be too rushed. The intensity of it all startled me. Each set of vamps represents a woman who is missing or murdered. Each set of vamps means an unfinished life. Each set of vamps reflects the love that a woman’s family and friends hold for her, a mourning that you can feel with an ache inside your heart. One pair is made of soapstone; another is made of birch bark, with the likeness of wildflowers etched into the it; many are beaded so beautifully, full of flowers, or rainbows, or sea horses. One pair was purely black felt, edged only by blue and green beads, leaving me wondering about what had been left undone, what space hadn’t been taken up in one woman’s life, and how many other lives were affected by her loss.

One pair had the image of a woman reaching up to the moon on the left vamp, and then the words “Sing her to the light” on the right one. She needs singing to the light, and she needs people to care enough to guide her. This one, in particular, reminded me of Gregory Scofield’s beautiful poem, “She Is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars,” from his collection, “Witness, I am.” You can hear that poem read by the poet here:


Through it all, in an hour of quiet walking, reflection, and prayer, I kept thinking (over and over again in my head): “So many. Too many.” What struck me was the amount of love (and grief) that was put into each pair of vamps. Here was someone who had written a poem for a lost sister or mother, affixing it to the top of the vamp. There, a few rows up, a pair with one faery and one mermaid made by a mother for her daughter. Then, in another section, a pair with Scottish thistles, while another had infinity symbols on them. Each set of vamps reflected the personality of a lost, but not forgotten, woman.

I was fine until I left. The smudging, I think, helped. The keepers of that lodge space smudge you as you go in, but then also smudge you when you come back out. When you leave, they smudge the front and the back of your body. It’s as if they know how heavy that experience can be. It’s as if they know that your heart will be affected, even if you don’t think it will be.

When I left, my friend Charmaine showed me the book that listed out the names of the people who had created the individual vamps. That’s when I started to cry. Divided into provinces and countries, there were endless lists of names. These were not the names of the women who were missing or murdered, but the names of those who loved them. It was a big book, and the names went on and on and on. She had shown me their names…and I couldn’t stop crying.

Walking downstairs, I had to duck around behind a bank of elevators to try and gather myself, but it wasn’t of much use. Here is what I kept thinking:

Why does this happen? Why are First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women so vulnerable? I know the logical and official answer. I do. Many, we know, leave their communities and reserves in the far north and move towards larger, more urban areas. Maybe they think they will be safer, or will find work, or will make better lives for themselves. What happens, though, is often the opposite. They may find drug or alcohol addiction, or poverty and homelessness, or prostitution, or relationships that are domestically violent, or cycles of abuse they can’t escape. They will lose their families. They will be disconnected in places that aren’t ‘home.’ They will be lost…and in need of feeling connection…to others and to the land itself.

All of it seems to stem from this country’s broken history of trying to colonize, segregate and then annihilate Indigenous people. Something is still so wrong, so broken, that we can hear of women like the great Inuit artist, Annie Pootoogook, found dead, floating dead in the Ottawa River, pregnant, and only in her forties.  We can talk of “Truth and Reconciliation” as if that will solve everything, but then you walk through an exhibition like this one, and you think “How? How does it stop?”

And here is the other thing I kept thinking, and the thing that made me weep even harder, after sitting in a sacred fire outside. “If this were to happen to non-Indigenous, white women, would this be the response?” My answer: no. How can so many women have been erased in such violent ways? You only need to do a bit of reading and research to hear their individual stories, and they are–quite simply–some of the most brutal things I’ve ever read about. How are Indigenous women so expendable, and non-Indigenous women not? It’s racist. It’s inhuman. It’s unacceptable.

If this were to happen to non-Indigenous women, if white women were found brutally battered and left for dead on the sides of highways in the northern parts of our Canadian provinces, or at the bottoms of some of the long prairie rivers, how long would this go on for? It makes me cry. It will continue to make me weep. It’s wrong. As a soul, as a  woman–regardless of race–I find it unconscionable.

I don’t know what the answer is…I don’t…and I’ve been thinking about it all day, and now into this darker night. I just know it can’t continue. This exhibition, “Walking With Our Sisters,” closes here in Sudbury on Wednesday morning. You have tomorrow, and part of Wednesday morning to experience it. You should be warned, though, that it may very well trigger you. It will make you want to shout, to question, to weep…and to pray for those families who have lost their daughters, mothers, aunties, sisters, and grandmothers.

They can’t be forgotten…they are our sisters.




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