Walking With Our Sisters Exhibit Honours Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

“As preteens we went ice fishing in McGregor Bay,” says Magen Cywink. “We set ourlines and waited for half the day. When Sonyadiscovered the fish on the line we’d all run down to the ice hole; it was hilarious watching her pull the line up as quickly and carefully as possible so that she didn’t lose the 12-pound Northern Pike on the other end. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of her in some way. Sonya was my best friend.”

Magen Cywink misses her sister Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink. The twelfth of thirteen children, her name translated to ‘wisdom and hope’. Sonya was found brutally murdered on August 31, 1994. Her remains were found 65 miles from her London, Ont. home at the Southwold Earthworks, an ancient site that once housed an Attarawondon village. Just shy of her 32 birthday, Sonya and her unborn child became just two more victims of an alarming pattern of violence against indigenous women. In May 2014, the RCMP released a report stating that 1,181 indigenous women had been murdered or gone missing from 1980 to 2012.

Magen had purchased a pair of Toronto Blue Jay’s tickets for Sonya’s birthday on August 19, 1994. When Sonya was a no-show, Magen wasn’t too worried as this was a habit of Sonya’s at the time. Sonya was living a busy lifestyle. But a week later, Magen began to feel uncomfortable as there was still no word from her sister and no one in the family had seen her. On August 31, Magen’s older sister heard a report on the radio that the police had discovered the remains of a “I just knew, deep down that Sonya was telling me it was her,” Magen said. Sonya’s murder rocked the family and the community back home in Whitefish Lake, Alberta. “There were no words, except a deep heartache that would not go away,” Magen said. “A wave of sadness, happy memories, regret, denial, anger, disbelief, hatred, revenge, and complete and utter speechlessness at the senselessness of it all, and grief for a child that I would never know.”

Sonya’s older brother Alex shares his sister Magen’s grief. “Our sister had a very gentle soul,” Alex said. “Being an older brother brings the responsibility to look out for her, and in that there is a sense of failure.” With such a high volume of missing and murdered indigenous women, the push for a national inquiry into the disappearances is in talks. The number that the RCMP has reported is controversial, as Christi Belcourt, creator of Walking With Our Sisters explained. “Since those numbers came out last May, the number of missing or murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) has increased,” Belcourt said. “Every twelve days of the last thirty years, one in four indigenous women has been murdered. The problem with this report is that the RCMP classify missing or murdered indigenous women as ‘Aboriginal’. That term does not include Métis women, Inuit women, or transgendered women who may have been living in a male body at the time of their death,” she said.

Indigenous women’s identities are not always recorded in police databases and there are many Jane Does whose ancestry remains unknown. Their deaths have enough context to warrant them as a ‘suspicious death’, but they do not carry enough sufficient evidence to prove a homicide. “Identities are not so obvious, not because of skin colour, but because identities are not always linked to First Nations reserves,” Belcourt said. “The RCMP say the number of Indigenous murders are going down, but records provided by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) state otherwise. Many indigenous women believe the numbers of missing or murdered sisters is actually much higher, one reason being, these records only go back 30 years,” Belcourt said.

http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/mmaw-faapd-eng.pdf

In June 2012, Belcourt became the Lead Coordinator of a special art project called Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS), which began as a means to pay tribute and bring attentions to all of the missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada. Walking With Our Sisters features 1,808 pairs of vamps and among these are hundreds of children’s vamps that commemorate those who were victims of abuse or murder during their time in residential schools. By using only the vamps and not the entire moccasin, the project illustrates the idea of an unfinished life.

“These women never had the chance to have a traditional funeral,” Belcourt said. “They never had the chance to go home. The families of these women were not granted the fundamental human right to grieve. A fully lived life was not there for them.” In some indigenous burial ceremonies, a new pair of moccasins are placed upon the feet of the deceased. The vamps on display showcase a variety of traditional indigenous art forms, including beading, painting, basket weaving, fish scales, porcupine quills and birch bark. Sonya’s vamps are among those on display at the exhibit and were donate by her cousin Kiki McGregor. They are done in a rich purple background with the swirled initials ‘S.C’ in white bead work. According to a message on her Facebook page, McGregor chose the white beads to symbolize the last time she ever saw Sonya, which was in the winter when she gave Sonya a white winter jacket to wear.

Alex questions how many more women must fall victim to such tragedy in order for change to occur. “Sonya is a sister who met a fate not her own and I, a brother, am one of many who share this sorrow and burden,” Alex said. “How many shall it take before our people change themselves and learn that this is not the way of our ancestors?” According to Magen, the change must start with educating indigenous peoples. “Education of our First Nations people on the repercussions of violence against our women and girls is crucial,” Magen said. “The emotional, mental, physiological or physical impact can last a lifetime and take away the dignity and honour of a female.”

Though the Walking With Our Sisters project raises awareness of the crimes against indigenous women, Magen is adamant that unless change happens in indigenous communities, a national inquiry will solve nothing. “The fix has to start from the bottom up, not the other way around…we as First Nations have to be our own advocates and we have to care about our young girls and our women; our sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and cousins,” Magen said. “If we don’t care about them, then why should anyone else? We have to end violence today, and it starts with us. It starts with us First Nations.”

for a closer look at the inquiry done by the RCMP, click here: http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/mmaw-faapd-eng.pdf

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