Hundreds of moccasin vamps cover the floor of Kateri School’s gymnasium for Walking With Our Sisters, a commemorative art installation to honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Jessica Deer, The Eastern Door)
Over 2,000 moccasin vamps are on display at Kateri School to represent the unfinished lives of hundreds of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people who have gone missing or were murdered across Turtle Island.
The vamps are a part of Walking With Our Sisters, a commemorative art installation that opened to the public on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s been a really life-changing experience for everybody who has been here. Rolling out the carpets, we had the experience of just feeling that energy from the other places,” said Kimberly Cross, communication coordinator.
The installation, which was spearheaded by Michif artist Christi Belcourt, has been touring across Turtle Island for the past five years.
In June of 2012, she issued a general call on Facebook for people to create decorated moccasin vamps. By July 25, 2013, over 1,600 vamps were received for its inaugural showing in Edmonton.
Hannah Claus, a Kanien’kehá:ka artist living in Montreal, was one of the artists who responded to the original callout for vamps. On Monday, she finally had a chance to see them again while she volunteered to help set up.
“The thing I really admire and respect about this is that it’s such a community effort. It’s all volunteers taking care of the vamps, the care that’s given to the project for missing and murdered Indigenous women and for the families,” said Claus.
“I think it’s beautiful how it’s gone to so many places and that it’s all inspired by and led by different communities throughout the country that are connected by this issue.”
Although the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center is the host organization that brought Walking With Our Sisters to the Kahnawake, it is completely volunteer driven. On July 1, dozens of volunteers began preparing Kateri School’s gymnasium for the installation.
To the sadness of many, community member and WWOS volunteer Joyce Canadian passed away on Sunday at the age of 67 years old due to unknown causes. The family is asking for donations to be made to Walking With Our Sisters, in lieu of flowers.
“She was so involved in the planning of the installation right from the start,” say fellow volunteer Helen Montour. “She was always willing to go the extra mile to help. Her heart was and will always be with us and we all will love her forever.”
“The importance of carrying out this work was revealed through the interactions with the other people volunteering. Understanding what it means to take care of those lost sisters, those people around you in whatever way you can, and even yourself is why it was important to volunteer,” said volunteer Vernon Goodleaf.
Goodleaf is currently working on a master’s degree in public policy and public administration at Concordia University and said the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has come up in some of his course work.
“It made the topics of class discussions and systemic political oppression undeniably real and tangible, while being simultaneously absolutely uplifting and crushing. It was important to witness what real strength is, in others and yourself,” he said.
The first three rows of vamps face inward to represent the women looking inside the lodge, while another three rows of vamps represent all the sisters to walk along with.
The centre of the lodge represents the four directions, a unique design to the installation’s stop in Kahnawake, with a turtle shell surrounded by over 200 baby and children’s vamps to symbolize the children who never returned home from residential schools.
Some of the sacred items on display include eagle staffs, a buffalo skull, and regalia made by Kanehsata’kehró:non Cheryl McDonald laid out on a bed of cedar.
“It really touched me because that’s how my sister was found, laying like that in the woods,” said McDonald.
Her sister Carleen Marie went missing in Akwesasne in 1988, and is considered one of the estimated 1,200 Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people who have gone missing or have been murdered in Canada within the past three decades.
Most Indigenous people think that number is much higher.
McDonald began beading the regalia, which is clad with the silhouette of a red dress, last summer after taking part the pre-inquiry hearings for the federal government’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“I started to get into beadwork as a part of my healing journey,” said McDonald. “I just kept adding piece by piece and I really think it was in that time of beading, creating, and self-reflection that all I had experienced in the last two years, coming to terms with my sister and meeting a lot of other families across the country.”
A pair of purple and white beaded vamps with the word Mohawk across them were chosen to represent her sister when the installation was on display in Akwesasne two years ago.
“They suited her over all the other beautiful ones I could have chosen from. She was proud to be Mohawk, and one of the last pictures I have of her she has Mohawk nation Akwesasne on her shirt,” said McDonald.
She was able to place the vamps atop the bright red carpets of the lodge on Sunday when she helped with the set up.
“Being among the women of Kahnawake, it was good for my soul. It was good for me to actually touch my sister’s vamps and place all the other ones. I came across a few names of family members who I am still in contact with, so it was very therapeutic for me,” said McDonald.
McDonald said the installation is a good way to honour the women and families who are still in the process of healing, waiting for closure, answers, or for their loved ones to come home, in many cases.
“Everybody has to experience this. I can understand if people are kind of hesitant and maybe afraid at what looking at these vamps will do, but when you see it all together like that, it really hits home how enormous the loss of our women is. It’s a great impact,” said McDonald.
Reaghan Tarbell, executive director at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, expressed similar sentiments.
“All too often, we see those stories in our newsfeeds about a young First Nations girl gone missing, we may read them, we may share them, some we just scroll past. This is kind of brining it home,” she said.
“As we were laying down the vamps and got to not even the quarter point of done and just looked a the number of vamps. Just imagine if those women were standing right now, how many women there would be. Seeing it in this way, puts it in perspective in such a way that you get the full impact.”
The installation is open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily until July 12.