An art installation that honours missing and murdered indigenous women is opening at the Grande Prairie Art Gallery.
Walking with Our Sisters has travelled the world and will begin here Friday evening. The display is meant to honour the interrupted lives of the many Indigenous women and girls who are missing or have been murdered.
Delaine Lambert-English is part of the planning committee that worked to bring the show to Grande Prairie. She says it’s been an emotional process.
“We’ve been here for days setting up, getting ready and being in ceremony. It’s hitting home today more so than the other days. But I am excited and I’m a little nervous and I’m just honoured to be a part of this.”
She says the whole display centres around the families of those missing and murdered.
The installation includes more 2,000 pairs of “vamps” or moccasin tongues that were decorated by families of missing and murdered women. Lambert-English says having something for people to look at is key to the experience.
“Because of that visual aid, that’s why it hits home for people. They can see [it]. And just the story as to why it’s just moccasin vamps and not a completed moccasin. It’s to represent the interrupted life of an indigenous woman.”
Lambert-English says every time she looks at the vamps she thinks of the heartache and the story that each one of them is tied to. She recently watched a family lay down their moccasin for the first time, something she called heartbreaking. She says it is also part of the healing process.
An opening ceremony will be held Friday evening when some local families will add their pieces to the display. Lois Duke was also part of the local organizing team and will lay down vamps in honour of her grandmother.
On November 18, 1961, her grandmother was killed in Chetwynd, B.C. A news article at the time indicated she died in a car accident but Duke says her family believes she’s was murdered. She says even though she wasn’t born yet, her life was altered that day.
“It changed my mother. She grew up without a mother after the age of seven and I would say she struggled a lot. I think she was in a relationship very young because of the loss of her mother. She met my Dad when she was 15 and it wasn’t a healthy relationship.”
“I often wonder what life would be like if my Grandmother had survived.” Duke continues, “If we would have had that healthy, happy family home.”
Duke says the effects have rippled through the generations. She has four siblings, two of which struggle with homelessness and one she says she lost to an overdose. Her mother and father have also both since passed away. She says being able to come together helps the healing process.
“Before this, there was no acknowledgement of what our community is going through, what our families are going through. This brings light to what our women and the children of those women have to go through.”
She says 57 years later she still feels the pain. Duke wishes there had been a healing opportunity like this for her mother and other family members at the time. She adds the process of working with the local planning group has created a sisterhood and helped her own healing.
The gallery also hosted The Aunties are Listening exhibit in May as a lead up to Walking With Our Sisters. It included some of the most important pieces of Indigenous art in Canada.
The space at the gallery has been built like a lodge. Organizers have included sage and other natural elements which have been laid under the floor covering in the space to bring the nature indoors. Lambert-English explains that to her community it is a sacred space.
“The lodge is a safe place. It’s where we go to ceremony. Similar to people who go to pray in a church, we go to our lodge. It’s a place where people are protected and where they are safe.”
All visitors will be asked to remove their shoes before going into the exhibit. On site will be “The Keepers” who act as guides to anyone who may attend. Because of cultural beliefs around connections to the spirit world, children under the age of 12 and pregnant women are asked not to attend.
Walking with Our Sisters will run from June 8 until June 14, 2018 at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.
Photos by Erica Fisher