How can a memorial reflect the presence of grief and the absence caused by lost lives? How can it bring tragedy to light without reducing lives to stories of violence?

Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS) attempts this balance as both a space for remembrance and a traveling memorial that draws attention to the staggering number of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. The project began in 2012 when artist Christi Belcourt issued a call for handcrafted vamps—the decorative tops of moccasins—to represent the unfinished lives of women.

The installation now comprises 1,928 pairs, including 118 for children who never returned from residential schools. The entire project is volunteer-run, donation-funded, and crowd-sourced, with vamps created by individuals and beading groups from across Canada as well as the U.S. and Europe. Each pair is a unique artwork, and all are laid at floor-level, with a pathway for visitors to walk alongside these echoes of absent women—sisters, mothers,
and friends.

From the outset, the national organizing collective sought the guidance of elders in making each installation akin to a lodge where ceremony holds a central place throughout the process. The memorial will travel to 32 venues before closing in 2019. In each community it visits, a dedicated local committee is responsible for ensuring that local indigenous traditions and protocols are followed.

Each community also organizes conversations, educational activities, and events—all contributing to the long-term grassroots awareness efforts that have gained international attention. In a May 2014 report, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated 1,181 missing or murdered indigenous women between 1980 and 2012, adding fodder to political debates around the issue.

As more politicians begin to take note, WWOS lead coordinator, media contact, and keeper support Tanya Kappo emphasizes the overarching relevance of the memorial and the need to leave titles and status at the door, “to pay honor to these women, to restore to them that humanity in death that they were denied in their lifetime.”

Jessica Fiala is a company member of Ragamala Dance and a former program and project associate at Forecast Public Art.

From Public Art Review #52, where this article originally appeared as “Remembering with Beads.”