By Lauren Scott
Cedar, a traditional Indigenous healing medicine, lines the walls of the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG). Hundreds of colourful, decorative moccasin uppers, sometimes called “vamps,” are laid around the walls of the gallery. One pair reads, “Some left their dreams behind.” These uppers have not been sewn into moccasins, so as to represent the unfinished lives of murdered or missing Indigenous women commemorated by Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS).
“We’re there to guide you along this healing process. It’s not just our healing process but it’s yours too,” says Kristine McCorkell, a member of the Kanien’ kahá:ka (Mohawk) Six Nations and a group tour educator for WWOS.
WWOS opened at CUAG on Sept. 25 and will be running until Oct. 16. The exhibit, which has been travelling the country for three years, includes over 1,800 intricately-decorated vamps and 120 children’s vamps. Countless stitches and thousands upon thousands of beads were intricately woven together by artists, friends, and family to celebrate the lives of missing and murdered women.
Officially, there are 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women, documented from the 1960s until today. However that number does not account for the women taken before the 1960s. McCorkell says she believes the number is much higher than 1,200 women.
WWOS started its nationwide tour in 2013, but before it took its first steps, it began as a dream that Christi Belcourt, a Métis artist, had one night. She dreamt that she was in a lodge, surrounded by women standing in rows. In order to honor the women who visited her that night, she decided to make commemorative vamps with the help of other artists and family members and friends of these women. Although the vamps are lined up, they are not arranged row by row. Residential schools required children stand in lines, as straight as humanly possible. WWOS’s organization of these vamps allows these women’s souls to be child-like, to stand alone without any imposed order.
Upon entering the installation, visitors are asked to take a small red pouch filled with tobacco with their left hand, as that is the side closest to the heart. Tobacco is held as a sacred plant by most First Nations peoples. It connects to the spirit world, absorbs prayers and carries them to this other plane. As the guests slowly tread along the edge of the gallery, after leaving their shoes at the door, the tobacco in their hand absorbs their prayers. Tissue boxes and tear collection bags are placed around the gallery as well. Emotional release is an important part of the healing process. At the end of the day, the tobacco and collection bags, filled with the tears and tissues of the day, are burned over a sacred fire to send this smoke and emotions it carries to the spirits above.
In the middle of the exhibit, there is a small canoe sitting atop blue silk. This is to signify that this event is being held on unceded territory, Algonquin land that was never won in contest or bartered away through treaties.
McCorkell says that the commemorative installation ceremony has garnered strong emotional responses from visitors, regardless if they are part of the Indigenous community. (Writer’s note: This is absolutely true. I found myself breaking down and crying uncontrollably in the far righthand corner of the gallery. I was told this was because I could feel the weight of these women’s souls.)
McCorkell says that because these women have disappeared from communities across the country over a number of decades, it does not seem as pressing an issue to the majority of Canadians. It seems spread out, as if it’s not a concentrated issue. However, the number of vamps inside the exhibit is staggering. To see the magnitude of this issue manifested in one room, is emotional. When asked why the issue has gone unnoticed for so long, she tells me it is likely a byproduct of “white guilt.”
“It’s this dark history that people, when they start to realize what’s happening, they kind of shut down and they don’t want to be part of it,” McCorkell says, “They know that they should be but there’s an emotional response that kind of builds a wall.”
WWOS was organized to break down these walls, to help others learn about and call attention to the issue. Elders and other Indigenous community members are there to help guide those outside the community to understand. WWOS seeks to call visitors to action.
“Just stand behind us. Let us know that it’s not just the Indigenous people fighting for our rights. If the whole country was like, ‘this needs to stop,’ then something would happen,” says McCorkell.
This article first appeared in The Leveller Vol.8, No.2 (October 2015).