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Feature: Telling The Indigenous Tale One Stitch At A Time


 

Beautiful intricate work in these Moccasin vamps.

Beautiful intricate work in these Moccasin vamps by Erin Konsmo

 

Stitch by stitch storytelling: Moccasin Vamps Heal Canada’s Indigenous Communities.

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Toronto, Canada

 

Every bead, a glistening tear. Every quill, the memory of a lost loved one. Every stitch, every stroke of paint, every silkscreened face – a memory of laughter, of love, of whispered secrets among friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, partners.

Every bead a hope, a prayer, a ceremony to find and give peace to the spirits of Stolen Sisters, the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada.

When noted Métis artist Christi Belcourt put out the call for vamps – the bridge of the moccasin shoe – and imagined the Walking With Our Sisters commemorative art exhibit in 2012, it was a labour of love to honour the lives of the over 1,200 Indigenous women who have fallen prey to a history of colonisation and oppression.

They are achingly beautiful, some whose message is fiercely evident – a woman’s eyes, the lower part of her face shrouded by yellow police tape; beaded portraits of generations of grandmothers, mothers and daughters holding on to each other before burning suns and moons.  And some whose message is muted, unseen to the eye of the uninitiated, told in an ancient language of flora which carry in their unique patterns generations of storytelling, or sometimes hidden messages of powerful medicines, stories, revelations and even messages of freedom.

“That the vision behind this comes from a piece of clothing is something I think is really amazing and different,” says Erin Konsmo.  “It’s connected to an actual social justice issue, and I know that other people in fashion have used fashion as a way to bring attention to an issue.”

The bundle of vamps include 1,763 unfinished uppers of moccasins, the unfinished lives of the estimated 1, 200 – 1, 800 Stolen Sisters, Indigenous women who live the “organized terror of the everyday,” women like cousins Helen Betty Osborne, Felicia Solomon, and Claudette Osborne, lives stolen over a period of 40 years; sixteen year old Maisy Odjick, who went missing with her friend Shannon Alexander after attending a dance with friends; and Rinelle Harper, a courageous young survivor who pulled herself from the frozen waters of the Assiniboine River to reclaim her life.  It also includes one hundred and eight children’s vamps which honour the children forcibly taken from their homes to attend residential schools, institutions set up to “kill the Indian in the child,” many of whom never came home.

 

Designs by Theresa Burrows

Designs by Theresa Burrows

 

Designs by Karen Ann Hoffman

Designs by Karen Ann Hoffman

 

As a visual artist, Konsmo’s own work expresses that land is ceremony, a missive she has impregnated in the vamps she contributed to the Walking With Our Sisters bundle.

Using birchbark, a traditional material – and medicine – often used in her Metis nation of Lac Ste-Anne, in the province of Alberta, Konsmo shaped her own contribution to the bundle.

“Land makes up a huge part of who we are, our identities, our spirituality,” she explains.  “That tension from leaving rural or remote areas or their reserves to move to the city in a part of what has impacted gender-based violence – that was something that I wanted to reflect on the pair of vamps that I made. When those connections are disturbed, I think that those are the types of things that put us at risk of gender-based violence.”

“Just like fashion, the vamps come from hundreds of years of history of Indigenous peoples design and art that are particular to each Indigenous Nation,” says Erin Konsmo.

That beading, quillwork and more modern art forms such as silkscreening were used is entirely intentional.  The history of beading and its sister art forms in Indigenous communities have a long, sacred and ceremonial history.

 

Designs by Dolly Peltier

Designs by Dolly Peltier

 

Designs by Caitlin Morrison

Designs by Caitlin Morrison

 

The source of beads told a story, as Manitobah Mukluks explains: “By using natural materials like shells, coral, turquoise and other stones, copper and silver, wood, amber, ivory, and animal bones, horns, and teeth, a person was telling the story of where they were from and to what family they belonged to.”

Patterns hold significance, telling a story of which community had likely produced a garment.  Floral designs are indicative of Woodland peoples, while abstract geometric expressions are typical of Plains peoples, with triangles, rectangles, diamonds, hourglass (a pattern in Bethany Yellowtail’s celebrated Apsalooke Nights dress – which signifies the balance between the spirit and physical words), feathered circle and checker box steps.

But above all, beading was – and continues to be – a deeply social and spiritual practice. In some Indigenous communities, only women can bead; in other communities, like the Cheyenne, women had to be sponsored and tutored into a society of beaders.  And in most communities, beading for spiritual purposes – medicine pouches, pipe bags, or even the vamps of moccasins – reminded the owner of a personal vision, a story or the meaning of a personal name.  “This reality – the work done as itself a prayer or vow,” writes Beaded Lizard Books, “underlines and strengthens ceremonial activities.”

 

Designs by Arlene Piddington

Designs by Arlene Piddington

 

Designs by ShawneeTee and Bill

Designs by ShawneeTee and Bill

 

The Walking with our Sisters bundle of vamps is more than fashion, a memorial or an art installation.  The vamps are ceremony, shared with communities in a lodge specifically anointed – or smudged – for this very purpose.  The vamps are nestled on layers of cedar– a medicine in many Indigenous cultures – which honours the unfinished lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Vamps are laid down on cloth in a path, the path of Stolen Sisters, which visitors are encouraged to walk holding small boughs of sacred tobacco to be burned, the smoke carrying prayers to the Creator.

“I originally asked for 600 pairs – we got 1,726 sent in,” Belcourt tells Muskrat Magazine.  “It was meant to be, because it acknowledges the lives of women beyond the past 20 years. I think what this is doing is just acknowledging the entire last 2-3-400 years of our colonial history and the abuse of Indigenous women on a grand scale.”

Featured Image Credit Erin Konsmo

 

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