How do you mark an unexplained absence, a disappearance, a violent death not accounted for? What do you do when that question is multiplied 600 times, with the prospect of more and similar disappearances from families you know, or in your community?
In July, 2012, Christi Belcourt, a Michif (Métis) artist who lives near Sudbury, made a Facebook appeal for help with a year-long collaborative art project called Walking With Our Sisters, to honour 600 missing or murdered aboriginal women. She hoped to assemble a show of 600 pairs of hand-made moccasin vamps (uppers) – but by year's end had received 1,723 pairs, from artists and craftspeople all over North America and beyond. Sixty-five new beading circles sprang up around the project, and many people learned traditional crafts to participate – "a beautiful side-effect," says Ms. Belcourt.
"A lot of people feel deeply about this," she says, on the phone from her studio in Espanola, Ont., where she is preparing to launch a six-year, 32-stop exhibition tour that begins Wednesday at Edmonton's Telus Centre. "This issue affects indigenous women on both sides of the border."
Walking With Our Sisters is both a memorial and a call to action over a long-simmering issue that has gained new urgency from the latest wave of aboriginal activism.
The questions are simple: Why are indigenous women so vulnerable to violence, and why isn't more done about it?
For years, indigenous people across Canada have been seeking a federal inquiry to find answers, backed by similar calls from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. Statistics Canada reported in 2010 that 87 per cent of murder cases with a female victim were cleared – meaning a charge was laid or the case was "solved" in some other way – but a study that year by the Native Women's Association of Canada found that the clearance rate for murders of aboriginal women was only 53 per cent.
Aboriginal women account for only 3 per cent of the population in B.C., but 13 per cent of the missing and murdered, according to "Forsaken: the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry," released in December, 2012. The report, written by former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal, attributed part of the "blatant failure" of police forces to properly investigate the disappearances of 69 women in Vancouver to a "systemic blindness … to the aboriginal dimensions of the missing women crisis." Twelve of the 33 women whose DNA was found on the farm owned by serial killer Robert Pickton were of aboriginal descent.
"We all know about Robert Pickton, but very few people can name his victims," says Teresa Burrows, a non-aboriginal artist based in Thompson, Man., who contributed beaded vamps that show a pair of eyes with tags below that read, "Hello, my name is ... Who Cares?" Part of the point of Walking With Our Sisters is to restore the individuality of the missing, who include university students, women with careers, wives, sisters and mothers.
"The vamps are intentionally not sewn into moccasins, because each pair represents an unfinished life," says Ms. Belcourt, adding that some indigenous peoples traditionally bury their dead with a new pair of moccasins, sometimes decorated with imagery specific to that person and the tribal or clan origins. Most of the vamps are beaded, but some feature embroidery, quillwork, pine-needle weaving (a form of basketry), fish-scale art and button-blanket techniques from the Northwest coast.
Denise Lajimodiere, a Michif and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) poet from North Dakota who is descended from the family of Louis Riel, contributed a pair of birch-bark vamps patterned using the ancient technique of birch-biting, in which a thin sheet of bark is folded and pierced with the eye teeth. Her vamps show dragonflies rising from reeds to symbolize rebirth.
"We say there's a prayer in every bead, and that's true of biting too," she says. "It's done in a very prayerful manner."
Dolly Garza, a Haida-Tinglit weaver and retired fisheries specialist who lives on Haida Gwaii, made her vamps from the skin of a seal she shot herself, with beading that symbolizes her family's grief over the murders of her uncle and cousin. She heard about Walking With Our Sisters just four days before the deadline, from a friend who saw the Facebook page.
Mary Jacobs, an O-non-dowa-gah (Seneca) nurse who lives on the Cattaraugus reservation in New York State, says her small beading group contributed about 30 of the 326 pairs of vamps that came from the United States, using the raised floral beadwork characteristic of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. The issue that motivated Ms. Belcourt is also very much alive in the United States, says Ms. Jacobs.
"When our women go missing, nobody looks," she says. "We're kind of swept under the carpet."
Tanya Kappo, a Nehiyaw (Cree) from Sturgeon Lake, Alta., is the "keeper" of the opening exhibition in Edmonton's Telus Centre Atrium, responsible for taking care of the vamps, connecting with local communities, and ensuring that appropriate ceremonial protocols are observed. Ms. Kappo says she is treating the vamps like sacred bundles – the collections of objects of special spiritual significance kept by many indigenous people.
"The vamps have this intense energy around them that I can't explain," Ms. Kappo says. "It seems to grow as more people see and interact with them."
They will be displayed along a winding path of heavy fabric with space on one side for viewers to walk without shoes. "Since the work is on the floor, people's heads will be bowed, they'll be looking down," Ms. Belcourt says. "It's quite humbling, in a way, and they'll be walking on cloth, so I expect they'll have to walk softly."
She's hoping that soft tread will be heard in Ottawa, where the government recently rejected a call by all 10 provincial premiers for a national inquiry into violence against indigenous women, and rebuffed a critical report on the issue from the UN Human Rights Council. A one-year parliamentary committee on the issue, struck in February after a damning report from Human Rights Watch, dissolved when Parliament was prorogued.
Ms. Belcourt has posted dozens of photographs of the vamps on the Walking With Our Sisters website (walkingwithoursisters.ca). Ms. Garza says she cried when she saw her work there with everyone else's.
"You can see the tears in there, and people's broken hearts," she says. "But a lot of it's about hope."