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Thursday
Jan192017

Walking With Our Sisters Is A Path to Healing

The guide, a petite Aboriginal Elder with gentle eyes, lifted a beaded blanket off the back of a chair and draped it over my shoulders. Its stitching read, “We Walk With Our Sisters.”

“Here,” she said. “Wear this as you walk through.” It was a healing blanket, intended to make anyone who was overwhelmed feel safe and protected. The blanket was heavy on my shoulders and yet it somehow also lifted a weight off my body.

Let me back this story up. I was at the MSVU Art Gallery today experiencing Walking With Our Sisters, an exhibit touring Canada and at Mount Saint Vincent University until Feb. 1. It commemorates missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit people and their families.

A dazzling 1,800 pairs of moccasin tops called “vamps” — each unique pair hand-crafted by a different artist — are the heart of the exhibit. The craftsmanship is impressive and often gorgeous, but the symbolism of unfinished moccasins, each pair representing an unfinished life, makes it also deeply reflective.

After taking off my shoes and entering the space I participated in my first smudge ceremony, a cleansing with smoke intended to purify my body, spirit and the space. With the smell of burning tobacco lingering in my nose I next turned to the petite Aboriginal Elder holding a basket filled with small, red pouches of tobacco. She explained that I could carry a tobacco pouch in my left hand — the hand closest to the heart — as I visited. Any prayers I made on behalf of missing and murdered women, and children who’d died in residential schools, would be captured by the tobacco and burned by an elder later today. Tissues were on hand for tears, and the tissues would be burned with the tobacco.

“I’m afraid,” I told her, “that I will cry, but I’ll be crying for my father-in-law who died last night and not for the people who your exhibit is honouring.”

“Don’t worry,” she reassured me with a smile, laying a hand on my forearm. “We accept prayers for anyone.” That’s when she honoured me with the healing blanket, literally cloaking me in support.

Gathering myself, I walked at a sloth’s pace counter-clockwise as directed along a red cloth path, staring at the array of beautiful vamps of many colours, materials and designs. Their vastness makes remembering any one pair difficult and I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the designs that incorporated flowers and trees, birds and animals, lightning shooting from clouds, and profiles of women’s faces. Traditional Indigenous songs in various languages played quietly in the background. I pulled the blanket even tighter around my shoulders.

On the inside of the red circle lay 108 pairs of children’s vamps, representing the children who never returned home from residential schools. They were painful to view and I tried to do so with humility and reverence.

Two eagle staffs add dimension to the exhibit, and with permission, visitors can add their own feathers to the staffs. Coincidentally, I had seen an eagle flying above campus this very morning, and though it didn’t drop a feather I did consider it an omen that my father-in-law’s spirit, after his suffering, was perhaps now soaring free.

I want to thank the MSVU Art Gallery and all the volunteers for hosting this powerful exhibit and for the sympathy and kindness they showed me today. I also thank Ontario Metis artist Christie Belcourt who had a vision in a dream for this show four years ago, had it approved by elders and operated by a national collective entirely through crowd-sourced funding. Also thanks to the Mount for making these photos available to me as visitor photography is prohibited.

I know Walking With Our Sisters is about something much bigger than me, but it offered me an opportunity to heal and reflect that I needed.

Find out even more here.

 

 

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