When I first entered the Walking With Our Sisters exhibit, my thoughts were on the assignment.
I was there as a photojournalist. My job was to get one or two meaningful shots. I had my mind on the lighting, the composition, the shutter speed and the depth of field.
I had walked approximately 12 feet when I saw the first pair of moccasin tops that were dedicated to a specific person.
Then it struck me: reality. This is not a simple art show. This is a commemorative display. This is history.
Two more steps, two more pairs of dedicated moccasin tops. Two more faces: two more North American females whose lives were cut short. In all, 1,800 pairs of moccasin tops, each pair representing a missing or murdered Canadian or American indigenous woman. As a Caucasian male, I entered the exhibit with full belief that my six degrees of separation would keep emotions at bay. I was wrong.
By the time I reached the first paper bag with the words “for tears” written on the outside of it, I understood why there were boxes of tissues at the entrance – and was dismayed for not having taken advantage of the offering.
The tissues deposited into the bags will be collected throughout the exhibit, to be burned in a cultural cleansing ceremony at the Tsow Tun Le Lum healing centre in Nanoose.
A volunteer walks by.
She is beating a drum rhythmically, singing what must be a spiritual song – some sort of prayer – weeping gently as she looks down. She is walking with her sisters.
Upon my completion of the tour, I found myself looking for the guest book I signed on the way in. Like many guest books, there is a comment space after your name and hometown. I could only think of one thing to say.
When I approached one of the organizers to discuss protocol surrounding the photos I had taken, she asked if I wanted to be “brushed down.”
Another volunteer standing there said “you don’t know what to say do you?”
I didn’t understand the meaning of the brushing down. But I did know what I wanted to say. I wanted to say “I’m sorry.”
Walking With Our Sisters is much more than an art installation. For some it is closure. For some it is recognition. For most, it is about honouring women, girls, even babies, who have been taken from their families far too soon.
Not everyone will get the same sensations I experienced. But it is an exhibit that must be seen; must be experienced. It is part of our history – a shameful part of our history. And when we talk about reconciliation, opening the books on the murdered and missing First Nations women in Canada must be a part of that reconciliation.
The Walking With Our Sisters commemorative art installation for the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada and the USA will be at the K’omoks Band Hall until Aug. 15. It has been touring Canada and the United States for more than two years already and is booked until 2018. The local stop is the only B.C. stop to date, and the only one scheduled for our province.
Admission is by donation.
Terry Farrell is the editor of the Comox Valley Record