Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Sisters

By Tracey Lindberg

edited by Kim Anderson, Maria Campbell and Christi Belcourt
University of Alberta Press
2018/$29.95/400 pp.

This powerful collection of writing and knowledge-sharing builds upon the good work of the Walking with Our Sisters (WWOS) art installation/commemorative gathering of moccasin tops—called “vamps”—that travelled to communities across what is now known as Canada from 2013 to 2018. Each of the 1,181 pairs of vamps represents a missing or murdered Indigenous woman or girl. The gatherings were always on Indigenous lands and the organizers did not, to my knowledge, distinguish between land acknowledged by Canada (reserves and settlements) and other spaces inhabited by our people (cities, farming towns, trap lines).

In Amiskwaskahegan (Edmonton area, in English) my sister and I attended the WWOS opening ceremony. We later returned to the space, a university foyer where the vamps were set up to allow both the placement of a tobacco offering and for attendees to walk in a circle between the vamps. When people asked where we were going, we would say “We’re going visiting” or “We are going to go sit with them.” We thought of them as animate, living; visiting and caring for them was part of our ceremony. For my sister and me, it felt like a place of prayer and peace. This was a rare experience in a colonized space. The organizers made ceremony in and reclaimed Indigenous spaces.

Keetsahnak, like WWOS, invites active engagement and refuses historicized generalizations about colonial violence. A loving commitment to honouring our women and girls is fully discernible in Ann-Marie Livingston and Sarah Hunt’s piece, “Honouring Elsie—Was She Just a Dream?” Livingston, Elsie Jones’s daughter, addresses questions such as: Aside from the legal realm of court cases and inquiries, how can Elsie’s story be heard and her life honoured? How can we connect the intimate acts of mourning and remembrance with the societal efforts to address the issue of missing women? Within her family’s story, Ann-Marie reminds us that public awareness and mourning follows family members’ awareness, mourning, grief and memories. The work engages with a conversation that must also have accompanied the installation: Who is entitled to represent this issue? And what are the parameters of mindful participation and support? (Hunt, an Indigenous academic, wrote/facilitated portions of the piece, but the right to representation was held only by Elsie’s daughter.) It’s a reminder that while a moccasin can commemorate, memory about our taken family is more than trauma and greater than the public presentation; our relatives maintain home in our memories.

Of note and importance as well is the contribution of Maya Ode’amik Chacaby, whose piece “(The Missing Chapter) On Being Missing” is a brilliant, sparse and rich account. Her chapter and another by Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy, “Considering Wenonah, Considering Us,” are remarkable in their gentle telling of hard truths. Starkly addressing Indigenous women as truth tellers/agents and placing that beside the violence we face, both chapters are thoughtful, intentional and painfully meticulous in their storytelling. Both pieces are gifts. Both require more of us as readers. As participants. As thinkers. As activists.

Many chapters in Keetsahnak will appeal to academic and non-academic thinkers and teachers alike—allowing readers to think holistically about community remembrance, mourning, celebration and healing. What does commemoration look like when the violence is ongoing? Though rendering collective experience and process as ceremony is exceptionally difficult, and cannot be fully captured in written words, this book is filled with shared means to remember and honour our community members, and offers many good ideas on building meaningful processes and communities to address colonial violence.

Tracey Lindberg is a law professor at the University of Ottawa. She is the author of the novel Birdie (HarperCollins, 2015.)

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