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Commemorating residential school victims

When 215 children were found in unmarked graves at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Jessica Hernandez felt the news like a weight on her shoulders.

“It was a really heavy week,” said the owner of Nicia’s Accessories. “I had never felt like that before.”

She knew she was not the only one struggling to process the discovery and that the rest of her community was also in mourning. So she put a call out for 215 handmade children’s moccasins as a commemoration to give Kahnawake’s beaders and artisans an outlet to channel their grief.

“To me, beading is medicine,” she said. She hoped that making the moccasins would give the participants of the initiative some quiet time to sit with the news and work towards healing.

“Everybody responded to the callout that they wanted to do it too because it was that same heavy weight that they were all feeling.”

The final tally of moccasins could be a few more or a few less than 215, but Hernandez said that given how many more unmarked graves have been reported since Kamloops, having the precise number is less important than raising awareness about the issue.

“It’s not just this one school. It’s all these schools where these children are being unearthed,” she said.

Alana Atwin responded to the callout by sending in a pair of beaded baby moccasins. She had beaded one moccasin of the pair in a class back in January and had put them aside for a bit as life got in the way. She decorated the shoe with a ripe red strawberry on the vamp. Then came the news, followed by the initiative by Hernandez. Atwin decided to keep working on the pair of baby moccasins for it.

“When I pulled the moccasins out to work on them, I felt that I wasn’t the same person who beaded that first one, knowing what I know now,” she said.

Courtesy Alana Atwin

To show that change in her, Atwin decorated the second moccasin with a pink, unripe strawberry.

“It made me think of all those lives that were cut short,” she explained. “They never got to grow.”

Jeci Tekentenhawitha Goodleaf, the owner of Goodleaf Designs, made a pair of corn husk moccasins for the initiative. She chose to use this traditional crafting technique because though it is not often used anymore, it was commonplace for the Haudenosaunee for generations.

“I suppose some of our people have even forgotten about this way of making moccasins,” she said.

Making her moccasins out of corn husk was a nod to the ancestors, a way to honour them in the project as well. “It’s something that they would recognize from their time.”

Hernandez said that she received a lot of suggestions about what to do with the moccasins to put them to good use after their display in Nicia’s Accessories. Those who want to take back their pair to use in ceremony can do so. Then the rest will be brought into Kahnawake’s schools in the days before Orange Shirt Day.

The goal is to use them to help start conversations with students about residential schools and the growing number of unmarked graves that are being found across Canada.

“We’ll showcase them so that the kids can see, and the teachers can have good discussions with them about what they mean,” Hernandez said.

The Kahnawake Survival School will have the moccasins on display on September 27, Kateri School on September 28, and Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa on September 29.

The Kahnawake Education Center’s executive director Robin Delaronde said that the school administrators agreed that displaying the moccasins was a good way to broach the topic of the consequences of residential schools with students. But they acknowledged that it’s a difficult, emotionally-charged conversation to have.

Delaronde explained that counseling services and other supports will be made available to the students as well as staff. She is also asking parents to talk to their children when they come home from school on the day they will be viewing the moccasins to make sure they have a venue to express their feelings about it.

“We want to make sure everything is really taken care of, and it’s an experience that’s beneficial in many ways.”

It is crucial to talk about the devastating consequences of colonial history, but Delaronde hopes that the conversation can also highlight the strength of their community.

“We also want to make sure that our educators and our children are sharing the resiliency of our community and our elders,” she said. “We’re making sure that our education system is based on our teachings. It took a long time, but we’re finally there, and we want to celebrate that, too.”

The moccasins will also be brought to St. Willibrord Elementary School in Chateauguay and Beurling Academy in Montreal. Hernandez said the principal of Beurling Academy contacted her about bringing the moccasins to the high school so that they can start a dialogue with the students about the issue.

“Saying you’re going to be an ally and help bring awareness is one thing but taking action is another,” she said. “I think her reaching out to me to have me go there is really important for that.”

After making a tour of the schools, Hernandez said that the moccasins will be donated to Indigenous children in the foster care system, “to tie them back to the communities.”

Working on the moccasins gave Atwin a bit of peace despite the ever-rising number of unmarked graves found near former residential schools.

“It’s healing to do it, to be able to put an effort toward something good,” she said. “I think we’re all still really in that sadness because it’s still happening. They’re still finding the babies, the children.”

For Atwin, who worked previously at Kahnawake Shakotiia’tekehnas Community Services, finding a healthy outlet to express grief is a necessary tool for healing in these times. She said she hoped others can find a way to feel the weight of the present moment without resorting to acts of anger or vandalism.

“It’s helpful, instead of screaming on social media or getting aggressive or fighting,” said Goodleaf. “It’s a really amazing
avenue to keep it in the forefront of everyone’s minds that we haven’t forgotten, and we still hope that some kind of justice is found for all of our ancestors.”

Goodleaf, who talked of her own family member who survived residential schools, said that while it’s still too soon for her to say that making the moccasins helped work towards healing, she felt honoured to have the ability to dedicate her time to a project like this.

“Burning tobacco and thinking about them while I grated and created, it was a bittersweet honour.”

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