By Suzanne Keeptwo
Since 2013, hundreds of unfinished moccasins, in particular the beaded vamp that decorates traditional footwear, have been working their way across this land. Each pair of vamps was stitched and beaded in memory of a murdered or missing indigenous woman or girl.
Visual artist, Christi Belcourt (Métis) does not seek recognition for having conceptualized Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS). “It’s not about me; it’s about the unfinished lives of these women. It’s the spirit of the sisters of those who are gone who want to bring comfort to their families” she said at a Talking With Our Sisters gathering in Ottawa last fall.
The ceremonial “Walk” started in Edmonton (AB) and has reached a variety of locations including Yellowknife (NT), Akwesasne First Nation (ON), and Red Deer (AB). For a total of seven years, based on a community’s collective will to honor their sisters, these diversely beaded uppers are scheduled to visit more communities including Toronto (ON), Kahnawake (QC), and Fort St. John (BC).
The Métis artist’s vision occurred in 2012, “I was haunted by an image of a young woman – reported missing – who looked like my daughter. I started thinking about her mother and wanted to do something to bring comfort. I saw the image of a red cloth and those vamps” Christi explained. She put a call out – largely through social media – for 600 vamps to represent a statistic of the murdered and missing at that time (tragically, this statistic has since grown) and a National WWOS Collective was formed. As lead coordinator, the artist would receive the vamps which led her to consult with Métis Elder, Maria Campbell who provides guidance regarding the ceremonial approach to the commemorative project. Protocols must be respected as the logistics of installing and caring for the sacred bundle is organized. It was Maria who determined the “Walk” would take seven years.
The set up of the memorial creates a sacred space to honor lives cut short by mystery and violence. “The safest place to release the emotions related to our murdered and missing Indigenous women is in this (temporary) lodge” says Christi. It provides a grieving space for families and, raises much needed awareness. “It’s been helpful for families to know that 100s of volunteers have taken the time to bring this issue to the forefront” says Kara Louttit (James Bay Cree) who serves on the national committee as a volunteer. Her sister, Tracy, was involved in the first installation in Edmonton and a friend helped bring an installation to Sault Saint Marie so, Kara soon volunteered to bring WWOS to Thunder Bay. Her dedication to the cause, based on her own family’s personal loss, led to an invitation to sit on the national collective.
It starts with one, or a small group, to bring this project into community by first contacting the national volunteers. It takes approximately one year of organization prior to the installation. Committee members, both local and national, adhere to the guiding principles of 1) Equity and Humility 2) Volunteerism 3) Kindness and Gentleness (no lateral violence is tolerated) and 4) Respected Protocols.
Close to 18,000 pairs of beautifully beaded vamps are currently on path – more than double the amount envisioned – with an additional 108 children’s uppers sewn by Grandmothers wanting to recognize Shingwak IRS students who never returned home. All of the unfinished moccasins represent related stories of trauma and death by acts of cruelty. The general public is asked to walk with these sisters and witness the healing impact to all. “It’s led by indigenous women but we are calling all cultures and genders in.” Heading into year four, goals are being accomplished.
The fate of these unfinished moccasins is unknown other than “they will not become a permanent installation in any museum or art gallery”, Christi ensures.
For more information visit walkingwithoursisters.ca
Suzanne Keeptwo is a freelance writer residing in unceded Algonquin territory.