They are as simple as they are intricate, moccasin tops stitched and beaded by the hundreds, adorned with hearts and moons and bear paws, a young mother swaying with her child in the breeze, and words like hope and faith, or, on some, a name: “Jimmy, a friend, an aunty: your love is strong; Irene, a mom, a sister: we will never forget you.”
The Walking With Our Sisters memorial is on display this week at the Taylor community hall, its final stop after a six-year journey to honour murdered and missing women and girls in Canada and the United States.
More than 2,000 pairs of moccasin tops, also called vamps, have been submitted for the memorial, and were meticulously placed by a collective of women and elders over the last week.
“A lot of the vamps when they arrived came with letters inside of them. Some of those letters said, ‘When I was a little girl, my grandma told me when I wasn’t feeling good to put my beadwork down,’” said Christi Belcourt, a Metis artist and co-ordinator of the project.
“You have to pick up your beadwork when you’re ready to pour that love into (it) because people will feel that from you; they feel that from the beadwork, they’ll feel your energy in the beadwork. So, when you come into this installation … it’s not so much seeing them as it is feeling them.
“Our traditional belief is that our energy goes into these, and so there’s a lot of prayers and a lot of tears and a lot of joy and a lot of hope put into these vamps. That’s what you’re feeling. It’s palpable, the energy is palpable.”
Ceremony, not art
Belcourt and volunteers who have helped set up the memorial are quick to note this is a ceremony — not an art exhibit.
Each vamp represents an unfinished life of a missing or murdered woman or girl. They have been arranged to mirror a traditional ceremonial lodge, where women stand around the periphery, facing inward.
Another layer of vamps has been placed as a path to guide visitors through the display.
"We're not just people who are gazing, but we're being gazed at," Belcourt said.
"The women are looking at us, asking us what are we going to do? Not only are we looking at their moccasins, but they are looking back at us. In that sense, it's really important that the people that come through here and view this come with a sense of respect and love and compassion for the families who have lost people."
A lean-to has been built in the centre of the room to represent a traditional Dane-Zaa funeral ceremony. Medicine ties filled with tobacco, cedar, sage, and sweetgrass, adorn each wall, with blue, yellow, and green ribbons to represent Treaty 8: as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow.
"That's how long that treaty was meant to last, and given the industry and the Site C dam and the things that have been allowed to go on, that holds true to us," says Connie Greyeyes, part of the committee that helped bring the installation to Northeast B.C.
"We still honour that. Unfortunately, we can't force other people to honour that, but we still hold to that. We have kept our side of the agreement and it's a representation that we hold that true, that those words meant something to us and they still do."
The same medicines have been placed underneath the red cloth that covers the floor.
Visitors are encouraged to smudge before they enter the memorial and when they leave, and must wear slippers or walk barefoot through the display. Women are encouraged to wear dresses, as is custom in indigenous culture.
"As you're walking along, you're protected, and the medicine is helping to heal and guide us through this," Greyeyes said.
Volunteers and grief counsellors will be on hand.
There are 13 murdered or missing women from the Peace Region represented in the memorial. At an opening ceremony held Monday, more local vamps were added to the collection.
Liz Logan, former chief of the Fort Nelson First Nation, will be placing vamps to honour her grandmother and two aunts, three of at least nine women from her community who have lost their lives in suspicious circumstances, or mysteriously disappeared, she said.
"Personally, my grandmother was found dead in 1964 and they said she died from exposure. But, rumour has it, that wasn't so," Logan said.
"Also, I have two aunties whose lives were cut short, and it was my youngest auntie who's murderer was convicted."
It's a sombre memorial and a sombre time for families — even for those who shed tears placing the vamps, Logan said. But it's an important moment to honour and respect those whose lives were taken before they were supposed to be, Logan said.
"In ceremony for us, sometimes there's no preparation," Logan said of laying her vamps. "It is what it is, it happens when it happens. In the moment, you just accept it."
Logan was one of five grandmothers who helped guide the memorial's setup and advise on protocol, and jumped at the chance to take part when asked. She had heard about the memorial visiting the Lower Mainland, and didn't think she would have an opportunity to witness it.
"It' a very important awareness event for those people that don't know or don't want to know about what's happening to women out there," Logan said.
"It's not necessarily aboriginal women. We have vamps here from non-aboriginal women. This is about murdered women and missing women, missing children who went to residential school."
Time and care was taken to learn about the women when handling and placing their vamps, Logan said.
"As I opened them, I wasn't just opening them and putting them down," Logan said.
"I'd open them, I'd read it, I'd look at the vamps, and I'd pray for the name attached, and caress the vamps, and look in wonderment at the beautiful beadwork in some of the vamps. I spent a lot of time doing that."
The memorial will be on display in Taylor until Sept. 16. After, the vamps will be returned to families who request them back, or be laid to rest in a final ceremony next year.
Belcourt has been travelling community to community to help with the installations, but it's the local people who have taken the lead in carrying the memorial the last six years, she said.
"Everywhere we go, the elders are really the leaders, and each community follows its own traditional ceremonial protocols according to the territory," Belcourt said.
"I would define my role as a helper and being a helper for the last six years has been one of the biggest honours of my life, and so I don't feel sad about it closing. I feel happy, not that it's closing, but I feel happy for the work that has been done. Six years is a long time for a memorial and it's been very powerful."
The purpose has always been to commemorate lives and offer support to families, she said. Raising awareness has been a bonus.
"We do see their grief and we feel their grief with them. The losses of their family members are losses to our nations, and we really feel deeply about that," Belcourt said.
"I don't look at whether it raised awareness or not, and I wouldn't be able to tell you whether it did because I haven't been keeping track of that at all.
"Our whole thing has just been: are we doing this part well? And if we do this part well, then we leave everything else up to the grand design of the mystery of life."
For Greyeyes, seeing the memorial finally open in Northeast B.C. is seeing her goal come full circle.
"When I look at my sisters and my friends and my newfound friends that are here doing this, I am so filled with love and gratitude over it that there's really no words," Greyeyes said.
"For me being able to honour families the way that they deserve, and the sisters, the families in this region, it's something so special it's, besides giving birth to my children, probably one of the most profound things I'll ever been involved in.
"It's a great honour," she said.
Walking With Our Sisters will be open daily at the Taylor hall from Sept. 10 to 16, starting at 9 a.m. All are welcome and the installation is free to attend.
To learn more, visit facebook.com/WWOSTaylorBC.
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at firstname.lastname@example.org.