It started with sewing.
When residents of Ross River and Watson Lake decided to commemorate the missing and murdered in their communities, they began to sew.
“We had many sewing circles throughout the year,” said Linda McDonald, project coordinator for the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society (LAWS), which recently hosted two pairs of potlatches to honour Kaska Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ People. “This is an example of where the process is larger than the end. The process of getting together was very healing, lots of laughter, stories, just being with each other and sewing these moccasins, potlatch bags, vests, we had a variety of things we wanted made.”
Those gifts were ready this September.
In Ross River, on Sept. 22 and 23, and in Watson Lake, on Sept. 28 and 29, the Crow clan honoured and prepared a potlatch for the Wolf clan. The following day, the Wolf clan took care of the Crows. Together, they feasted. They made speeches. They gave gifts. They placed headstones at the graves of women who’d gone without for years.
It was a time to reflect and remember, but also to reconnect with family and community, said McDonald. Everyone was welcome. Non-Indigenous people joined. Members of the RCMP showed up. Member of Parliament Brendan Hanley was there.
“This was historic,” McDonald said. “To honour murdered and missing women and girls and two spirits … who have been murdered in Kaska territory.”
She said the families of those citizens have wanted a commemoration ceremony for a long time. Over the last year, the planning of the potlatches was directed and guided by those families. Nothing was decided without their consultation.
Jody Dick has family members who participated in the planning. She herself knows a number of the women who were commemorated over the weekend in Watson Lake. One of them was her auntie, Tootsie Jimmy-Charlie, whose body was found in a Whitehorse dump in 1967.
Dick spoke with the News over the phone on Oct. 3. She said the potlatch was an exhausting, amazing experience. It didn’t provide closure on the deaths, exactly, because what could? But it felt right, she said, like it celebrated the lives of Indigenous women and served as a funeral for the ones who never came home.
“We were all there honouring their lives, which made me feel so whole because everybody showed up, and we all got together as one, and we shared this moment of our missing and murdered,” Dick said.
She said it brought up a lot for her, about identity and who she is. She thought about how much she and her whole community lost by losing her aunties and their knowledge years ago.
That was an intentional part of the commemoration, said McDonald, to bring back something lost by hosting traditional potlatches. She said they’ve “fallen by the wayside” over the years and that there definitely haven’t been any this large, that welcomed the entire community, as well as family from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and more.
“Culture is where the healing happens,” she said. “The benefits of all this culture is really immeasurable. For example, those young people who were drumming, the amount of pride it would take, or just the courage to stand up in front of 200 people and drum, is fantastic. And so we had Kaska prayers, the drummers sang Kaska songs, and also there were teachings about how important this event was for everyone.”
That includes language. That was beautiful to hear, according to Martina Volfova, who is director of language at the Liard First Nation and has been adopted into the Wolf clan.
In fact, beautiful is a word she uses repeatedly when she talks about the potlatch in Watson Lake.
“It was pretty emotional,” she said. “I think that the families, for a long time, have felt these women are forgotten, and there was often no closure, so this was a beautiful way to remember them and honour them and see them as human.”
She said the build-up to the event had been huge, and it was great for the community to recognize its women specifically, and to highlight, in general, the ongoing epidemic of violence against Indigenous women.
That’s one reason Dick would like to see the event happen annually. The issue isn’t one that’s been solved.
“There’s women going missing every single day,” said Dick. “One is being brutalized, one is being murdered. It’s so sad to know these statistics of our nation. As a nation of women, why do we have to do so much resistance? Why? That’s what I want to know.”
McDonald said LAWS will be speaking with families soon to find out how they felt about the potlatches. Informally, though, she felt it went well.
“It was a reaffirmation of who we are as Kaska people, and who we are, and who our kids are, and who our families are,” she said. “So many different levels of healing and different levels of reconnecting. And I, as I said, culture was at the root of everything that we did. Because we really believe that culture is where we will heal and reconnect to who we truly are.”
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org