Denise Pictou thought she'd feel sad first witnessing a memorial to missing and murdered indigenous women.
“What I found instead was love,” says the daughter of murdered Mi'kmaq activist Anna Mae Aquash.
Walking With Our Sisters, now on view at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery to Feb. 1 in its only Atlantic Canadian stop, is a ceremonial display of more than 1,800 pairs of moccasin tops called vamps.
All visitors must remove their shoes and women may wear decorative skirts selected from a bin outside the gallery. As people enter the gallery they select a red tobacco pouch and are wafted by volunteers with medicinal smoke to clear negative thoughts. People walk counter-clockwise along a path of red cloth.
Some vamps are intricately beaded in stunning colours and symbols by hands that knew victims of violence. Other bear pictures of women and babies, names, words of loss and love. They are made of leather, cloth, stone and fur; they are beaded, quilled, painted and decorated in buttons. They contain grief, love, hope, honour, anger and, above all, a deep connection to the lost souls in highly detailed crafting.
There are also 108 pairs of children’s vamps that were added in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in 2014 to honour children who died while attending residential school. (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that up to 6,000 children may have died.)
Four years ago Pictou herself answered the call on social media for vamps by Ontario Metis artist Christie Belcourt after the artist had a vision in a dream for this show, approved by elders and operated by a national collective entirely through crowd-sourced funding.
“It was the first time I beaded, which was powerful, and I shared that experience with my daughter,” says Pictou.
Her daughter, now 19, grew up as Pictou and her sister, Debbie, undertook the arduous and complex journey to get her mother's murderers to trial. Anna Mae Aquash was a Mi'kmaq activist murdered at the age of 30 in 1976 in South Dakota. A federal jury indicted two men for her murder in 2003; Aquash's body was reinterred at Indian Brook in 2004.
“The case is 41 years old,” says Pictou, who is still dealing with it. “My daughter's only known her in death and known her through the trial process. She's incredibly understanding. My mother is something she never had.
"We try to talk a lot about truth and justice and making sure my mother is remembered in a good way. Remembering her values and her life is more important than remembering how she died.”
Walking With Our Sisters is “not necessarily a memorial of sadness,” she says. “It is a memorial of acknowledgment and it's portrayed with love and respect and honour for the families and the women. A lot of families are suffering with no acknowledgment or justice.”
The show is personally important to her as “an opportunity to memorialize and bring homage to my mother in a way we've never had the opportunity to do before — with other missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“And on a whole,” she adds, “it expresses a message to the public that our women are not just statistics. You get an idea of how big this is and how unjustified.”
According to a news release, recent RCMP data indicates more than 1,180 indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people or those identifying in a non-binary way have gone missing or have been murdered over the last 30 years. Research from the Native Women's Association of Canada puts the figure much higher at 4,000.
“I consider it the most tragic issue in Canada now,” says organizing committee member Michele Graveline, who moved to Nova Scotia 20 years ago from Manitoba. ”There's a consciousness about indigenous women that really needs to shift in this country and memorials like this — and there are others — bring awareness."
Graveline, who made a pair of vamps, graduated from the same high school as Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year-old Cree woman brutally murdered in 1971 in The Pas, Manitoba. Osborne was studying to be a teacher; it took 16 years for her murderers — four local Caucasian men — to be brought to justice.
“I was only five when she was murdered,” says Graveline. “Who knows where she could have ended up as an indigenous woman in the education system? They really took a bright shining light and it happens and it continues to happen and people don't recognize what has been taken from all of us.”
For people coming to the show who have no personal connection to the tragedy, “I hope they find a personal connection to it,” says Graveline. “I hope people are moved.
“It's a memorial so we're honouring these women in a good way and that's important because we often hear of the negative aspects of their lives but these are loved women and girls and two-spirited people.”
The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.