By Alanna Carlson
A long, red cloth led down a sloping trail to the edge of the South Saskatchewan River. On it, over 2,000 handmade moccasin tops called “vamps” were carefully placed, forming a beautiful and heartbreaking rainbow honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Following ceremonial protocol, I wore on a long skirt, smudged with sage, and took tobacco to offer before slowly making my way down the trail, pausing intermittently to look closely at the vamps. They were stunning. Intricately beaded, felted, and stitched, the vamps were intentionally not sewn into moccasins to represent the unfinished lives of the women and girls. Some vamps had writing on them, others were adorned with beautiful flowers, birds, symbols, and names of women. Pairs of small vamps represented the lives of murdered and missing children.
Upon reaching a clearing at the water’s edge and looking back at the vamps lining the hill, the magnitude of the tragedy hit me. I bent to offer prayer and tobacco on a cloth lined with jewellery, photographs, feathers, and sage. A tipi stood prominently at the shore, where a camp of fire keepers watched over a sacred fire that had been burning, night and day, for a week.
The gathering ended with a closing ceremony, feast, and procession. The final procession began at the edge of the river. Three youth howled like coyotes, the sound carrying across the water and raising the hair on my skin. Hand drummers beat their drums and sang. Singers and youth carrying items from the camp led the way back up the hill, followed by Grandmothers – each holding a stone in their hand. Next followed women, then Grandfathers and men. Friends and families held hands and looked forward up the hill. We were asked not to look back or look down at the vamps; this was the final goodbye.
Later, over the course of the next week, some of the vamps were offered to the fire. Others were returned home to their makers.
Note: The Walking With Our Sisters project began in 2012 when Metis artist Christi Belcourt put a call out on social media asking people create moccasin vamps to honour their sisters. She was hoping to receive 600. Over 2,000 vamps were submitted from all over the world, including Canada, US, Europe, Africa, and Australia. From 2013 to 2018, with the help of the WWOS Collective, the exhibit of vamps travelled to 28 locations in Canada and the US. The last time it was in Saskatchewan was 2014.