The Stolen Sisters Digital Initiative (SSDI) an artistic commission by imagineNATIVE and national exhibition of four, one-minute digital works by award-winning Canadian Indigenous filmmakers celebrating and honouring Indigenous women and their contributions as strong, successful and valued members of society. Each artist will post about the project and their works leading up to the imagineNATIVE 2012. More information about SSDI
Artists: Angela Sterritt, Trevor Angus and Stephen Gladue
Blogger: Angela Sterritt
Missing and murdered Indigenous women..
No matter what political slogan is inscribed in your heart or etched in your mind – the reality – is not an easy pill to swallow. Indigenous women seem to be of little importance to Canadians – to the justice system, to governments, nor concerned citizens. This was clearly articulated at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry - held in the fall of 2011 in Vancouver BC.
Since the early 1970s almost 600 Indigenous women have gone missing or murdered in Canada, and still no national inquiry, no effective police force dedicated to the cause, and not nearly as much attention garnered as there should be.
My role is not to blame, but to underscore the role of those who do have the courage to speak out, stand up, and manifest a destiny where we, Aboriginal women are honoured and respected, in our lives and deaths.
The Stolen Sisters Digital Initiative compelled me to sculpt my paintings into a ‘moving’ story called “Your Courage Will not go Unnoticed”. It speaks to those stories that embody the love, honour and care that individuals have given, not only to Aboriginal women, but also to our children and the earth. Each frame covers the life of an Indigenous girl or woman who has raised her head, her fist and the bar to make life better for all.
These stories are part of a larger project, one that has taken many years and many threads to sew, weave and braid together.
I became immersed in the fight to see justice for Aboriginal women in Canada in 2005. I worked at a number of women’s shelters and centres in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, with various justice organizations and as an independent political speaker and writer. In some cases I was advocating for Aboriginal women, in other cases working as a journalist; reporting and documenting the stories I was told by family members, women on the streets, advocates, and women and girls involved with the justice system.
I was among those who thought there was a serial killer at bay. However, our suspicions and our vision to see concern met for these women were often overshadowed by the paralyzing narrative that these women were transients who thrust themselves into unsafe situations – wielding their lives into the air, to be lost forever. The media was not except from sweeping atrocities under the carpet in the name of unspoken discrimination either.
Many mainstream newspapers in British Columbia and Alberta, for example, only covered the Tragedy on the Highway of Tears in 2002 when Nicole Hoar, a 25-year-old [Caucasian] woman, went missing. Kate Rexe, who worked on the NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit campaign at the time, noted that only after tragedy struck a White woman did the media begin focusing (some) attention on the lost Aboriginal women.
In analyzing transcripts from court cases, the criminal code, and general discourse – on many occasions men committed serious levels of violence against, even murdered Indigenous women and girls, and would walk free or receive very minimal sentences (in comparison to other cases). Shocking nonetheless. Nothing short of Heartbreaking.
Journalism for me eclipsed in and out in the movement in various ways for years – attempting to cut a clear path to the truth of what we all know: that Indigenous women are human and deserve respect and care.
Art for me was a less unbiased vestibule for change – hope facing fear. Armed with stories of the lives and death of our people, I went in with a blunt message. You cannot take our spirit of hope away.
I began an acrylic painting series that would reflect the stories I had learned about – but were very under reported. Thus this project : “Your Courage will not go Unnoticed” was born.
Numerous large-scale paintings – some up to 6 feet tall – each tell a remarkable story. The women who had taken risks, who had struggled, who had made miracles happen. Who had stopped massive destructive projects from happening- like the systemic ignoring of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The shape shifting or moving of my paintings was facilitated with the help of very talented Métis artist Stephen Gladue . By adding words, symbols, dynamism, new elements such as light, feathers, rain and darting, my paintings shed more life and help describe the pertinence of drawing attention to Aboriginal women, our history and strength. It was important for me to juxtapose emotions and subtlety, with blunt messages and hard graphic design in order to help tell the story in a compelling way.
Gitxsan artist Trevor Angus lent his brilliance with traditional west coast design when he stepped up to the plate by collaborating with me on two of the paintings in this series – “the Cleansing” and, the painting that the entire series is also named “Your Courage will not go Unnoticed”. His killer whale and raven design literally made these two paintings and would be artistically deficit without his help. I’m honored to have worked with his skill level and also his genuine support of the issue.
All the people in this film are real people, based on their lives, their strengths and aspirations.
The first painting in this one minute film is a young Cree woman I met while facilitating a session at Dream Seeds - a program for young women. Candice had overcome and transcended the bounds that were set before her. At only 17, she had the courage to speak out – softly about the realities she faced and stepped out of – regardless of the challenges. Too often, in our communities, we face isolation, disbelief, and even retaliation when we speak out about abuse. This painting is called Manifest Destiny. It kicks the film off, and it’s about dreaming of, desiring, and needing healthier communities, stronger relationships, and a disappearing of internal and normalized racism.
The second painting or frame is called “First Contact”. It’s about our ability to utilize the gifts of culture, spiritual knowledge and connection to the earth and our families to face colonization. The woman in the painting is Cheyenne Reynoso, a Cherokee, Choctaw, Shawnee, Aztec and Apache woman. An extraordinarily intelligent, fierce and beautiful woman, she watches as helicopters descend and attempt to take away everything that is important to her. But she is strong and her teachings, integrity, inner strength and grandmothers are on her side, hence she rises above the horrific events that have happened.
The third painting is about our power as life givers and land knowledge keepers. We have faced and will face again, the loss of our land, and the return of it as well. Missing and murdered women, many removed from their traditional territories, may have often felt a sense of alienation, despair, loneliness, and may search for those voids to be filled. Alaina Tom is a woman who lives on the land, and teaches her four beautiful children to hunt, fish, gather berries and medicines and her life focus is to reclaim and keep traditional lands and teaching and pass them on to the future generations.
The fourth painting is called Our Courage will not go unnoticed. This is Ta’Kaiya Blaney. She is 11 years old and may be considered one of the most powerful Voices of the environmental movement of our time. She represents and in many cases is, the spirit of hope I referred to earlier. She shows us the importance of the children, of the earth, of the song, and of Indigenous culture. She shows us, that we can do better, that we can learn, educate ourselves about First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and we can have a better world, one that is free of racism, discrimination, and violence.
Ham’ya to everyone who has been a part of the movement for honour and respect of Indigenous women, children, and men.
Thank you so much to the people below who graciously and generously supported the project by contributing pledges and support in multiple ways Hamy’ya..
Captain Michael F. Harris
Lisa M Langan
Laurie Edward Watt
Elizabeth D. English
Elizabeth D. English
Lisa M Stepnuk
James J Harkins
Marilyn A Jensen
Lisa M Langan