For two weeks in early October, Bent Arrow was a partner with our Parkdale-Cromdale Community League neighbours in an art installation meant to bring awareness to community and healing for the families of MMIWG2S (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People). 

Kevin Wong and Steven Townsend, both board members of the league, approached us last winter to ask for guidance and support in bringing their idea to life. The idea was to create an awe-inspiring art installation that evoked love, honour, and remembrance for the women and men who were taken from us too soon. I quickly became excited at the potential this display had to educate and honour. I spoke of resources we could bring to the installation. Our teepee. We should have a sacred fire, a fire meant to be a portal from this earthly experience to the spirit world where our lost are now. We explained that the fire needed to be tended and fed and the firekeepers needed to support visitors who came to make offerings of tobacco to the sacred fire. The smoke would carry prayers up to the spirit world, to the Creator. We talked about starting the art installation in a ceremony, with an Elder lifting a pipe for us to have our offering to the people, that it be well received, that it educates others in a good way, that the families feel the honouring of their lost loved ones.

We invited others into the circle to help us plan. Stephanie Harpe is a community advocate and activist on the issue of MMIWG2S to communities all across Alberta and Canada. She brought forward the idea to have the images of the lost projected onto the red panels. She also suggested including the stories of the families left to mourn, piped into speakers placed around the display so visitors could see their faces and hear the families’ experiences. It was to be a truly multi-dimensional experience for every visitor. 

The installation received many visitors over two weeks. | Cheryl Whiskeyjack

Some things happened that we did not plan. Like the altar of offerings that grew each day at the base of the installation. Flowers, stuffies, and tobacco, left by visitors and family. For two weeks this installation hosted visitors.

When it ended, we also had a ceremony to extinguish the sacred fire. The Elder said that for two weeks, this fire burned. Many prayers were said and many offerings were made. And because of this, the remnants of the fire, the charcoal and ash, were still holding those prayers and that they remained very sacred and powerful, with the power to protect. The Elder invited those present to take some of that charcoal home as protection.

Speeches were made. Gratitude was expressed. Gifts were exchanged. 

When I spoke, I shared how I have a niece who is struggling with addiction and living on the street. That her dad has been made to feel guilty of wasting police resources when he reports her missing. I expressed how far we have yet to go in this journey, that those meant to serve and protect don’t see her as worthy of it.

We all went home.

I took a piece of that charcoal home. I placed it in the frame with the embroidered red dress that was gifted to the families. I shared the teaching with my brother. I told him about the charcoal, of all the prayers and offerings that were made, and how this charcoal now carries those prayers and has the power to protect. I told him that I prayed for my niece and her family who feel powerless to protect her. I then gave him the frame with the charcoal and red dress. He accepted my offering with gratitude. My brother travels from his home in another province every two weeks to come and search for her. On the last visit, I learned that his daughter reached out to him for help. He was elated. He was able to convince her to get help. She has been hospitalized since and is slowly progressing. He explained that he feels strongly that the gift I gave him is responsible for this latest unexpected positive turn.

Will she continue to improve? I hope so. More importantly, my brother felt the love and prayers that added up to hope. Love and prayers that came not just from the usual suspects in the Indigenous community, but from the wider community of caring folks who came to visit, to pay respects, offer prayers, feed the sacred fire, and be educated. This is the power and importance of ceremony. It was an incredible honour to partner with the Parkdale-Cromdale Community League. 

PCCL has received the Anti-Racism Grant from the City of Edmonton. PCCL and its partners hope to create an exhibition tour in other communities to raise awareness. Email [email protected] for more information and to get involved.