The power of the collective—and the pain of many—combine in Walking With Our Sisters, the commemorative art installation for missing and murdered Indigenous women that began touring Canada last year. Comprised of more than a thousand pairs of moccasin vamps decorated by volunteers across North America, WWOS is remarkable not only for its powerful effects on audiences, but its highly collective mode of production and organization. Here, Métis artist Christi Belcourt—a lead coordinator on the project—tells us how the initiative began and grew, what makes it different from what we usually think of as an art exhibition, and where it is going next.
Q: How did Walking With Our Sisters begin?
A: What prompted it—the straw that broke the camel’s back—was seeing one too many posters of missing Indigenous girls. One day, I saw one that hit me harder than usual, because the girl on the poster looked like my daughter.
Soon after I saw that poster, I was driving to Ottawa thinking about women’s work and the traditional beadwork typically done by women, and it was almost like the idea was fully formed. I just saw people taking off their shoes and walking on this red carpet among these moccasin tops.
So by the time I got to Ottawa, I started emailing and messaging people, and in less than a week I put up a Facebook group page. It had 2,000 members almost instantly, and it just took off from there.
I think what really got me when I saw that one poster was, as a mother, just thinking about her mother and what she must be going through. Day after day, year after year, not knowing where your daughter is. You would never stop looking into the crowd to try and see her. I think that’s how it affected me the most.
So the project really started on that purely human level… one mother to another.
Q: And how did the project grow?
A: The Facebook page was created in June 2012. I gave a one-year due date for the work to arrive and put an open call out. It didn’t matter what anyone’s [artistic] background was, or whether they were a new artist or an established artist. The only thing I asked was that people were caring souls.
People really responded and then beading groups started to spring up—over 65 of them! People also started to join our national and regional collectives.
There are 20 people on our national collective; it is not my project anymore—I’m just helping make it happen as a lead coordinator and member of the collective. Some other people on the national collective include Sherry Farrell Racette, an artist and professor in Manitoba who came on board early to help with curatorial and installation questions. Artists and curators Ryan Rice and Maria Hupfield also came on early and were there to help with all kinds of issues.
Essentially, each of the people in the collective take on different roles. Some are advisers and others physically go to the communities and do the work with the communities for the installation. Others will travel and do youth workshops in those communities. There are activists, educators, poets…
But that’s just the national collective. At the regional or community level, there’s community councils that consist of elders and keepers, finance people, all the people they need in the community—usually about a dozen at least—to make the project happen.
Q: How are elders involved? Usually, in an art context, we don’t see them put front and centre.
A: Right away when I had this idea, I went to give Métis elder Maria Campbell tobacco and ask her if she would help guide protocol—to make sure that what we were doing was following all the traditional protocols around ceremony in Indigenous communities.
We wanted to make sure that everything we did was respectful, especially to the families, because we are talking about people’s lives. We never want to do anything that’s out of step with the respect that’s due to those lives and their families.
So everything follows these very strict protocols, which is really interesting. It’s a way of melding ceremony with art that I’m not sure has been done to this extent before, involving this many people.
Q: Can you tell me more about the spiritual and protocol aspects of WWOS?
A: Well, we’ve been calling this more of a memorial than exhibit.
Before anything is brought into the space, we smudge the space. Then before the cloth goes down, there’s either sage or cedar that’s put down on the floor, and the cloth goes down over top of that.
There are also protocols around the volunteers—they have to smudge before they touch the moccasin vamps, for instance.
On each community committee there are at least two elders and two keepers. They are responsible for the sacred items within the bundle, essentially all of the materials.
Basically what we do is we take a space, whether it’s a community space or a gallery, and all that matters is the community then transforms it into a sacred space, and the ceremony is held for the 10-days-to-3-weeks duration. Then everything is wrapped up and it goes on to the next location.
Q: How many pairs of vamps are in the installation?
A: The installation is growing, albeit slowly. 1,725 pairs arrived just within July and August of 2013.
Now we are up to 1,763 pairs, because 38 pairs have been added by family members in the five locations we have gone to so far.
We don’t actually ask for more pairs to be added, but … for example, a lady came in Winnipeg with a pair of vamps in hand, and she said, “I made these for my daughter and I would like them to go in.” We will not turn away a family member bringing pair of vamps for their loved one.
But when we do accept those vamps in, there are protocols to follow. We talk to the elder who is on duty at the time, and they do whatever they feel is appropriate to bring them in.
Also, in Sault Ste. Marie, we had a special call out for vamps for children who had never made it home from residential school. We got 108 pairs of those, and all of them except for 8 pairs will eventually be going to Algoma University, which is the site of the old Shingwauk Residential School. At some point, those will go into a permanent installation there.
In the meantime, those children’s vamps are travelling with the other vamps, so there are 1,763 plus 108 children’s vamps.
Q: The images I’ve seen of this installation are quite remarkable. Can you tell me more about the vamps you received?
A: There’s an incredible diversity in the materials and the way people chose to use the vamps.
Some people chose to create their images in a sort of a traditional way—doing symmetrical imagery on each of the vamps. Others chose to spread their images across both the vamps.
There’s painting, quillwork, beadwork, and mixed media. Somebody sent in a pair that had computer components on it. Another person sent in a traditional pine-needle basket weaving.
Regionally, there’s also different styles. There’s the Mohawk raised-beadwork style, there fish-scale art (that’s a traditional Métis art), there’s weaving, there’s birch-bark biting.
When you walk into the space, the first thing that hits you is just the sheer numbers, because you really feel how many lives have been lost. You almost see the women standing there wearing their moccasins.
And then, as you walk around and you’re looking down at each pair, it’s the artistry that comes through—the beauty of the work, love, care and the attention to detail that went into every single pair.
There’s a lot of feeling in the space. Part of that comes from the energy the artists put into their work. We got a lot of notes that came in with the pairs that would say, “My grandmother told to put down beadwork if I wasn’t feeling positive, or if I was in a bad mood, because that energy would be imparted into the work.” Those notes came from all over North America.
So that also means that when you walk in, you are walking into a space where 1,372 different artists have put their energy. You feel it; it’s palpable. And it can be quite overwhelming.
Q: This exhibition also has a healing aspect, some say. How have you experienced that so far?
A: It’s hard to describe because it’s in the culmination of dozens of small moments that can’t really be recorded or measured.
It’s in the moment when a lady comes and shakes my hand and says, “You know, I really felt like my friend was there with me, looking over my shoulder. I really felt her presence in there.”
Or it’s in the moment when a sister comes and gives me a hug and is crying and says, “I really didn’t want to face the loss of my sister, and there were things that I had put on the back burner, and this the process of making vamps and then coming here and seeing this has really helped me to take that next step in my own grief.”
Q: A variety of community events spring up around WWOS installations—like beading sessions, or film nights. What’s the role of these events, if they are not adding to the material of the travelling installation?
A: What’s really nice is there’s an opportunity for this [WWOS] to bring community together in different ways besides just this particular memorial event.
For instance, in Winnipeg, people from the community beaded squares, and then they sewed them into a quilt. On July 3, the quilt was unveiled at Neechi Commons. So the community has created its own memorial that is permanently installed in a place community members go.
Basically, there’s opportunities for other organizations to put anything on that they want to put on around the issue. It’s a chance to make it a citywide or town-wide type of thing. These events are really up to the community, and they’re not tied to the gallery or the space.
Q: How else is this project different from what is typically called an art exhibit, do you think?
A: Well, one of our guiding principles is that everyone leaves their career at the door. So politicians have attended and can attend, but they are not acknowledged for being elected; they are just acknowledged as any other person is acknowledged.
At our opening ceremonies, we don’t have any speeches. It’s the elders who do a traditional ceremony. That’s followed—sometimes, it depends on the community and how they set it up—with allowing family members to speak if they want to, and having elders speak. Then maybe they do a traditional pipe ceremony if they want to open it up.
So it’s really challenging, I think, to how people normally do things. So far, it seems to be working exactly the way it should.
Q: You’ve been through a lot with this project. What has most surprised you along the way?
A: I don’t know if “surprised” is the right word… but maybe it’s reaffirmed my faith in people.
I think we get skewed sometimes when we only pay attention to what media or reports or politicians say are the news stories of the day, and we forget that there are so many good and decent human beings. You know, there are more good human beings than there are not.
It’s easy to feel swallowed up and overwhelmed by the negative stories that we see, and it’s really easy to feel like we’re alone and we can’t do anything.
But this has really shown me that there is power in numbers, and we can do something, and there are a whole lot of good people in the world.
Q: Since Walking With Our Sisters held its first memorial installation in 2013, calls have grown stronger for an inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The UN, in particular, recommended an inquiry in May 2014. What’s your view on how public awareness around these women has changed—or not—since Walking With Our Sisters began?
A: This project sets out with one main goal, and that is to do the act of honouring, and to come together as a community to honour. In that, it’s been successful.
A side effect—a really good one—is awareness. Besides the UN’s call for a national inquiry, the premiers came together and officially made a call for one last year. In May, the RCMP also reported a total of 1,181 missing and murdered Indigenous women—though a lot of people feel that number is actually low. So far, however, the federal government has refused to call a national inquiry.
Walking With Our Sisters is a project, not an organization. So we don’t have a position on whether we support an inquiry. All that we do know is that we support whatever the families want. Some families want it. Some want direct action. And we support both.
Overall, I think awareness is rising among non-native people. It seems to be more understood that this is a real issue and a crisis. That’s a good first step, to get everyone aware that this is a problem.
The result of inaction is more death. So it just can’t continue like this. And Indigenous communities shouldn’t have to fight this on our own.
Q: Walking With Our Sisters has caught the imagination and feeling of many people from coast to coast. Where does it go from here? And for how long?
A: It’s actually going until 2019, so it will run for seven years. That’s what our elder has told us.
We don’t know what will happen with the vamps after that yet, but we know we won’t be touring after the seven years—even though we have had more [touring] requests than we are able to accommodate.
Our elder has told us really clearly that it just needs to go for that specific amount of time. It’s too hard to sustain a ceremony for that long and keep it with that same level of intensity and integrity.
I respect what she said—it’ll be seven years and then it will be done. She said, “Then somebody else will do something else.”
Walking With Our Sisters recently completed a memorial installation at Elks Hall in Flin Flon, Manitoba. This fall, it will head to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in Ontario from September 19 to October 12, and from there go to a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, venue. For more details on venues and dates to come through 2019, visit walkingwithoursisters.ca.
Note to the reader: This interview has been edited and condensed. A caption in this article was corrected on July 14, 2014. The original caption misspelled Teresa Burrows’s first name as Theresa.