In 2012, Métis artist Christi Belcourt decided to commemorate the many cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada in a unique way.
Belcourt put out a call on her website asking people to construct moccasin vamps (the upper part of the soft leather shoes) for those indigenous women. She wanted 600 pairs and gave a deadline of one year.
“They started coming in in batches. First 10, then 20, then 80 a day,” says her father, Tony Belcourt.
Over 1,800 vamps from all over Canada and the territories were sent by the deadline, giving the artist more than enough to set up the commemoration she had in mind.
The result is “Walking With Our Sisters,” an art installation at Carleton University in Ottawa consisting of pairs of moccasin vamps. Belcourt used only the vamp to symbolize the unfinished lives of the women and girls being honoured.
Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at a much higher rate than other women in Canada, and are far more likely to experience violence.
The number of women and girls involved has been called a “national shame” due to the grim statistics. An RCMP report released in May 2014 and updated in June of this year cited 1,182 missing or murdered aboriginal women since 1980. It only reported on cases within the RCMP jurisdiction and so provides only a partial picture of the total number of targeted females.
The installation was set up with a lot of care. The room was first purified and cedar branches were laid on the floor.
“Cedar is one of the four sacred medicines and it’s a protector. So all those women are protected in there. They may not have been protected in life,” said Barbara Dumont-Hill, an Anishinaabe woman from Kitigan Zibi Reserve who is onsite to answer questions, look after the installation, and talk with people after they have seen the vamps.
The cedar branches were covered with cloth and the vamps were laid out on the cloth in a particular pattern. Belcourt dreamed about the room before constructing the first installation, says Tony Belcourt.
“She had a dream that she was in a room and there were women all the way around the perimeter of the room, standing in this room and these were missing and murdered indigenous women,” he explains.
“In her dream Maria Campbell [Métis author, playwrite, and friend] appeared and started to dance in the centre of the room and she said she got up and followed Maria and started to dance as well. So she felt it was important whenever the memorial was held, no matter where it is, that it be in the concept of a lodge, a ceremonial place, and it would be important that there would be rows of vamps facing inward all around the perimeter of that lodge because that was the vision that she had and that these would be women that were looking in from their place in the spirit world.”
‘We don’t want you to be sad’
Visitors walk around the cloth to view the vamps that are made of a variety of fabrics including deerskin, birch bark, felt, wool, and leather. Each pair is unique and the designs use beads, shells, embroidery, photos, buttons, or paint. Also on display are sacred items used in ceremonies such as medicines, rattles (made of turtle shell), and tobacco pipes.
The exhibit impacts viewers first with its size, which highlights the magnitude of the problem, and also from the care and love that went into making the vamps representing cherished mothers, daughters, and sisters from every province.
Elders and volunteers are present so people can share and talk about feelings that can arise. “There isn’t a person that I’ve talked to that isn’t moved in some way,” says Tony Belcourt.
“I’ve tried to talk to everyone who comes out and surprisingly most of the people are non-native that I’ve talked to,” adds Dumont-Hill.
“A lot of them have expressed a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, a lot of embarrassment, and asked how can they make this better. So we tell them we don’t want you to be sad or feel guilt. We’ve felt that. We’re glad you’re here for this healing and it does my heart good to know people care, Canadians care.”
The exhibit opened in Edmonton in 2013 and has been set up in various cities around the country. After Ottawa, it goes to Akwesasne. It will travel until July 2019, including to several American locations such as the Smithsonian museums in Washington and New York City. The final memorial will be at Gabriel’s Crossing in Saskatchewan.
For more information and images, visit www.walkingwithoursisters.ca