By Ishbel Munro
Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS) was a commemorative art project honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people, whose numbers exceed 2000 over the last 20 years. The project included more than 1800 pairs of moccasin vamps (representing those who were lost) decorated by contributing artists, and arranged on the floor in a winding formation. Visitors removed their shoes to walk alongside the vamps, on a pathway of cloth, to engage in reflection and show solidarity and respect. This decolonizing project, carried out by local Elders and volunteers, and guided by the Indigenous National Collective that organized the show, transformed the gallery into a ceremonial site of healing. Many of the visitors commented how unlike a conventional art exhibition it was.
Visitors to the exhibition were formally greeted by volunteers and guided on the protocols of walking the path alongside the unfinished moccasins and offering tobacco. The gallery provided an additional room where volunteers interacted privately with grieving relatives and friends. Volunteers also supported visitors who were emotionally overcome by the exhibition.
MSVU Art Gallery was the sole venue in the Atlantic Region, on the 29-stop national tour. The Gallery accepted the responsibility of providing assistance with travel to the many families and friends of the Indigenous “sisters” from this vast region who have succumbed to violence.
The opening ceremony was attended by Elders, including many from our Right Relations Hub and MMIW families from all of the Atlantic Provinces. We met the day before and our members and others planned the flow of the opening, discussed issues and shared stories. It was deeply moving. Representatives from as far a ways as Labrador and from across Atlantic Canada shared stories, teachings and songs with the more than 500 persons who attended the Welcoming Ceremony. It was inspiring to see how many non-natives came and were open to learning about Indigenous culture and the issues facing Indigenous women and communities.
Many of the MMIW families ceremonially laid in new pairs of vamps representing their loved ones. It was a powerful ceremony and took much longer then thought. It was moving how many people patiently waited for the ceremony to end so that they could through and view the exhibit.
Over the 2.5-week span of the exhibition, a further 3,000 visitors attended the exhibition. The gallery has never seen attendance like this. People lined up for an hour to get in. The exhibit brought the most media coverage that gallery has ever had, as well.
School groups were prevented from visiting by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union work to rule. However, volunteer engagement was intense, with about 150 volunteers donating their labour. Volunteers included persons of Indigenous, Caucasian and international backgrounds, aged 18 to 80. The volunteer WWOS Halifax Planning Committee was composed of about 16 individuals.
Two key objectives of the exhibition were to help MMIW families heal, and to raise awareness and cultural understanding in a very mixed public. The exhibit certainly increased the general public’s understanding of social justice issues through an experiential exhibit. It also brought healing to those whose family’s members are missing or murdered. It is hard to describe the impact and how it undermines a person when a loved one is gone through tragic and socially unjust circumstances. It can be crippling on so many levels. The transformation that comes from acknowledgement of your experience and sharing space with others who know just how you feel, helps a person to move forward in a good way.
This was also a community re-building event. In the past Indigenous communities were built on mutual support. Over time, through western influence people have become accustomed to being paid an honorarium to drum or paid as head dancer, or attending a conference or as an elder. This project was designed to re-kindle the spirit of community. Just like a wake, people were invited to do whatever they could to help out. People brought food, supported elders and family members and took care of each other. The full event was guided by the grandmothers who created a collective wisdom for how things would go. People became like a flock of birds, soaring together, checking in with each and adjusting the flight plan as they went. It was very organic and beautiful.
The surge of interest and good will from the general public also suggests that the presentation of WWOS in Halifax has advanced the national project of Reconciliation. We were proud and honoured to be a part of this excellent “teaching” event.