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art

With justice elusive, art serves as vigil for missing and murdered

The Walking with Our Sisters exhibit at the Kateri School, Khanawake reserve.

Touring art installation displays more than 1,800 decorated moccasin vamps, symbolizing the lives of Indigenous women and girls that have been lost

Tiffany Morrison was last seen getting into a cab in June, 2006. Her bones were discovered four years later in a wooded area near the Mercier Bridge that links Montreal to the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve, where the 24-year-old mother of one child lived.

Morrison's image appears at least twice in Walking With Our Sisters, a touring art installation dedicated to more than 1,200 Indigenous women who have disappeared, died or been killed in unexplained circumstances. It opened at the Kateri School Kahnawake last week, not long after the latest community vigil for Tiffany Morrison, whose last hours remain a mystery.

An image of Tiffany Morrison, whose remains were discovered four years after she went missing in June, 2006, is seen on a moccasin vamp.

The exhibition, which was first seen in Edmonton in 2013, can be considered a vigil in material form. It consists of more than 1,800 decorated moccasin vamps, or uppers, mostly contributed by women. The vamps are made of felt, animal skins, birch bark and even stone. Most are beaded, but some have been worked with porcupine quills, pine-needle weaving and traditional birch-bark biting.

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All the pieces have been carefully laid out along broad, linked avenues of fabric, as if the women who will never wear these vamps in completed moccasins were lined up in procession. Visitors to the show literally walk in the direction in which the vamps are headed.

The number of pieces is overwhelming. In that sense, the exhibition reflects the overwhelming nature of the grief, confusion and outrage in Indigenous communities, about the disproportionately high number of Aboriginal women who have vanished or died without anyone being held to account.

And yet the display is serene and orderly. Volunteers at the entrance offer visitors the opportunity of purifying themselves with sage smoke, to get rid of negative feelings. You can also hold a small pouch of sacred tobacco as you move through the show, the orientation of which requires you to walk with head bowed. You go without shoes, on a fabric walkway laid over cedar sprigs, adjacent to the display. In the centre of the exhibition, which is configured to represent the four directions, are a large turtle shell and two standards of eagle feathers, along with instruments and regalia for ceremony.

Visitors walk without shoes on a fabric walkway laid over cedar sprigs.

It's a religious scene, as much as a display of art work and handcrafts. Volunteers I spoke with referred to it as a ceremony, not an exhibition. The point seems to be to sharpen people's awareness of a continuing tragedy, but also to frame it within a healing system of ritual. Even the work of making the pieces involved ritual: A common saying among Indigenous beaders is that every bead contains a prayer.

"It's a heavy-hearted situation," said volunteer Iehwatsirine Reed, whose grandmother contributed vamps to the show. "But it's also comforting, because you feel like it's very welcoming and calm."

Walking With Our Sisters, initiated by Michif artist Christi Belcourt, was prompted by tragedy and death, but it mostly celebrates life. Common subjects illustrated in beads and other media are flowers, animals, butterflies, strawberries and the night sky. One enterprising beader represented the Aurora Borealis.

Others expressed themselves through images of Indigenous people and traditional activities, Christian iconography, lighthouses and memorials for women identified by name. These underscored the fact that the shape of a moccasin vamp is similar to that of a tombstone. The visual association has even deeper meaning in Indigenous communities, which bury their dead in a new pair of moccasins.

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Vamps for children represent the many Indigenous girls who died at residential schools.

The exhibition includes about 200 vamps for children, meant to memorialize the many more girls who died while in custody at residential schools. As with the adult vamps, the display of one element of an incomplete shoe symbolizes the unfinished lives that were lost.

Overtly political vamps, such as a beaded view of a woman's eyes behind police tape, are rare in this show. In another sense, the whole exhibition is political, in the way it reflects on the frustrating search for justice for Indigenous women in Canada.

While Belcourt was planning the show and gathering vamps in 2013, she said that one goal was to prod the federal government to investigate why the police clearance rate for murders of Indigenous women is only 53 per cent, as compared to 87 per cent for non-Indigenous women. In 2014, then-prime minister Stephen Harper said that a public inquiry into the issue "isn't really high on our radar."

Four years after Walking With Our Sisters began touring, the prospects for understanding and justice seem as murky as ever.

Last year, the Trudeau government commissioned a national inquiry, which soon faltered under controversial administration and a distant relationship to the families of missing and murdered women. In May, the Native Women's Association of Canada pronounced the effort a failure. The inquiry's executive director announced her resignation last week. Four years after Walking With Our Sisters began touring, the prospects for understanding and justice seem as murky as ever.

Planning for more stops on the exhibition's tour has extended into 2019. Unfortunately, it looks as if the show may be just as timely then as it is now.

Walking With Our Sisters continues at Kateri School Kahnawake in Kahnawake, Que., through July 12. The show will be displayed at the Aboriginal Education Centre in Toronto, Oct. 15 – 29.

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