The rows upon rows of beaded upper pairs featured in the traveling Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS) commemorative exhibit might be stunning to view, but their aesthetic beauty is just the surface of their value.
Like the lives of so many Aboriginal women missing and murdered in Canada, over 1,800 pairs of moccasins or mukluks – now on display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (PWNHC) in Yellowknife – remain unfinished, interrupted before they could fulfil their potential.
“It’s not an art exhibit. I know it’s referred to as that sometimes but it’s a commemorative memorial ceremony…solely to honour the missing and murdered indigenous women and the affected families,” said Nola Nallugiak, executive director of the Native Women’s Association of the NWT and a lead organizer behind the installation’s Yellowknife visit.
Since early January, the PWNHC has been draped in red carpet covered in mocassin uppers or “vamps” representing a pathway through the lives of the indigenous women known to be missing or murdered in Canada. Those who visit the memorial are asked to follow a ceremonial protocol by participating in a smudging ceremony carried out by elders and keepers upon entering the sacred space.
“I find that everybody who has walked through has been very respectful and you can see that they’re very genuine,” Nallugiak said. “You can tell that they’re connecting with the display and understand truly that these are the lives of women whose lives have been lost.”
This is not the type of memorial that can be attended passively, Nallugiak implied. Since September, over 100 volunteers have come together to establish activities in conjunction with WWOS, including several community teach-ins on violence against Aboriginal women and a series of youth committee workshops run by local youth coordinator Stephanie Young and her assistant Jacey Firth-Hagen.
“Our hopes for including youth in the process is to raise awareness about some of the issues and the situations that youth are experiencing and to build a youth community and help youth connect with each other in a way,” Young said. “It’s been a very eye-opening experience just being a part of Walking With our Sisters and the community that’s been created around it.”
Because of the interactive nature of WWOS, keepers and elders have been asked to check in with visitors on their way out the door, ensuring their well being as they head back into the world.
In an effort to get those impacted involved, the department of Justice has also granted the WWOS committee funds to transport affected families who have had a female family member stolen by violence to Yellowknife for the ceremony. Nallugiak noted those funds are not currently being used to their full extent.
Sacred additions to the traveling memorial
While the display is in Yellowknife, Northern elements have been added to honour the uppers and the women they represent.
Spruce boughs appear throughout, adding a healing and medicinal presence. Furs from animals of the North sit atop a large, fabric Arctic Grayling, offering comforts from the land. A swath of green cloth snakes across the roof imitating the glow of aurora borealis, with hand drums hanging around it, meant to represent the belief held by many Northerners that prayers made with the drums go up to the sky to the spirits and the Creator, Nallugiak said.
Beneath that setup is a stage holding a collection of sacred items donated by communities that formerly played host to WWOS. When the memorial departs for Whitehorse on Jan. 24, an ulu, a small Métis sash and a rattle will be gifted from the Yellowknife keepers to carry on with the exhibit.
Though the event will officially close with a final teach-in session on Jan. 26, the women’s stories will live on as citizens continue to rise and address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. According to a RCMP report published early last year, approximately 1,181 cases have been reported.
Next month, the GNWT will host a roundtable on missing and murdered women, to take place in conjunction with a meeting of the federal Aboriginal Affairs working group. The official dates have yet to be determined, though they are expected to fall on either February 11-13 or 25-27.