Thousands of intricate moccasin tops are on display at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre this week, representing the unfinished lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada.
Close to 1,800 pairs of decorated flaps of felt and leather, known as vamps, have been donated to the Walking With Our Sisters exhibition. They represent the work of more than 1,300 contributing artists.
Walking With Our Sisters is a national art installation that has been touring the country since 2013.
The Whitehorse exhibit opened on Saturday. Hundreds of Yukoners have contributed in their own way, by attending sewing circles or volunteering time to help with the installation or with showing visitors through the space.
Preparations have been going on for months.
Sharon Shorty has been helping to lead a sewing circle that contributed work to the exhibit.
“It’s been healing, it’s been fun,” she said. “We laugh. I’ve been sewing 45 years and I’ve learned six new techniques within two weeks.”
Shorty held a pair of vamps with an intricate beaded flower she sewed to commemorate one of 39 documented missing or murdered aboriginal women from the Yukon.
The pattern came from her auntie, she explained, pointing to a picture of the women and other members of her family displayed on an interpretive panel on the cultural centre’s wall.
The vamps displayed in the exhibit show an extraordinary wealth of tradition and talent, said Shorty.
“If you walk in there, that’s world class work. It’s amazing. Aside from what it represents, the artistry there is incredible.
“When I look at all of these, I just see all this symbolism, and the techniques, the styles of beadwork, the types of beads they use. It has really revitalized me as an artist.”
On Friday afternoon, the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre was bustling as organizers and volunteers worked to get ready for the opening, and to show local reporters through the exhibit.
Everything about the space has been intentionally laid out in a certain way, intended to bring significance and ceremony.
Visitors can choose to be smudged with smoke in a cleansing ceremony before entering the room.
The vamps have been laid out in a circular formation over paths of fabric around the room.
Visitors are invited to remove their shoes and put on moccasins, if they have them, and walk beside the artwork, in a clockwise direction through the space.
In the middle of the room, a raised circular platform holds dozens of smaller vamps, for children’s moccasins, that memorialize children who died while attending residential school.
“It’s representing that every one of these unfinished lives is important, no matter who they were or where they came from, these indigenous women matter,” said Krista Reid, who works at the cultural centre and is one of the organizers of the Yukon showing of the installation.
“Many of these issues that we have in our communities are results of effects of residential school and colonization and legislation and policy that have created terrible consequences for aboriginal women in this country, and we need to bring awareness of those,” she said.
“Those things have created barriers and marginalized our women, and created stereotypes. So this is an opportunity to create a space of sacredness and awareness that, yes, these things are real in our communities, yes.
“But look at how resilient we are, in spite of those things. And look at how this community has come together. You don’t see only First Nations people helping put this together. It’s all walks of life in our community that has come together. That creates a partnership and a space of moving forward and forgiveness.”
“To me that’s one of the most beautiful things about the show,” said Mary Bradshaw with the Yukon Arts Centre, which is co-presenting the exhibit. “It’s not simply the awareness. There’s the healing and the sadness of it, but there’s hope, and caring. That people take the time to meditatively bead or sew – stitch by stitch you’re thinking of these women, and you’re thinking of ways to move ahead.”
While mostly women have been involved with the sewing and tending to the exhibit space, men are doing their part too.
Since the beginning of the installation process men from the community have been fasting between sun up and sun down and tending to a sacred fire they have lit behind the cultural centre.
“They’ve been outside tending that fire, staying overnight,” said Reid. “They’re taking care of us from the outside. Because it’s the men’s job to take care of everything that’s going on outside, and the women’s job to take care of the home fires.”
The exhibit runs through April 25. Opening hours are 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with extended hours to 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
Everyone is welcome, especially those who feel like they may not belong, said Reid.
“Those are the ones we want to come the most. They’re the ones that probably have the most to learn, and so we would love it if they joined us here.”
No phones, photography or video is permitted in the exhibit. Volunteers and guides are available at all times to give an orientation to the space, answer questions and give support.
Other events that are expected to run concurrently with the exhibit include further meetings of the sewing group (all are welcome and encouraged to try) and screenings of a documentary about B.C.‘s Highway of Tears.
Those events have not yet been scheduled. Visit “Walking With Our Sisters – Whitehorse” and “W.W.O.S. Sewing Group” on Facebook for updates.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at