Tanya Kappo is an Indigenous lawyer who has worked on residential school files and with many Indigenous organizations. Recently, she has focused much of her time on the Walking with Our Sisters project as a response to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). Kappo gave University of Manitoba students a detailed description of the community-led project Sept. 26, 2018, and shared her experience volunteering with this movement.
Walking with Our Sisters began in 2012 and is expected to wrap up by 2019. This movement was entirely grassroots-funded and had overwhelming support from Indigenous communities across the country.
The idea began with Christi Belcourt, an internationally renowned Métis visual artist. Her goal was to commemorate MMIWG through moccasin “vamps” (the upper side) created by community members across the country and put into an exhibit.
The movement began on social media with a call for vamps. The initial goal of Walking with Our Sisters was to obtain 600 vamps. The group drastically exceeded this number with more than 1,2000 pairs. The vamps were decorated with a variety of media, including traditional beadwork, birch bark and soapstone. The guiding principles of the project were love, volunteerism and humility.
Kappo emphasized that the initiative is a Nation-building exercise and has encouraged Indigenous women to come together, re-learn their traditional art of beading, and discuss the issue of MMIWG. She said the movement was successful in many ways: “It was very healing and rebuilding for the families.”
“The fundamental underlying piece of this project was building relationships,” Kappo said. Community members would contribute in any way they could, from creating vamps to making bannock for meetings to helping transport the project from place to place. It also gave people the opportunity to have difficult conversations in a safe and supported way and allowed for communities to reconnect.
The installation process took about four days once in each community where the project was invited. The exhibit was guided by ceremony during setup and throughout its time in the community. Everywhere the project went, local Elders provided guidance and observed the protocols for that community.
The project had its final community visit in British Columbia and the well-travelled vamps will be returned to their creators. Kappo has been part of the project for the past five years and says it was “one of the most beautiful things in my whole life.”
What can I do as an ally?
Just coming out! It’s nice to see allies somewhere at an event hosted by Indigenous peoples. In seeing you there, it helps to lift up the spirits in the room.
You have such a busy life, as a lawyer and a mother, how do you find time to do this work?
As an Indigenous woman I know MMIWG is not something that’s over and it’s not just a historical occurrence. It’s a very real threat to me when I leave anywhere or to my daughters. The threat is there, that they’re going to be the one. It’s not a matter of having time, it’s that I have no choice, it’s life or death for myself or my daughters, potentially. It’s all about prioritizing. A lot of people are good at understanding in my work and my community. I’m lucky I’ve been able to continue to be involved.
What are some of the things you did/do to help you process all the difficult emotions throughout the project? Can you offer any wisdom?
When talking to communities, we tried to really stress self-care and to know when you’re starting to feel a little off or tired. Our role is to know for yourself when to go or to help someone else realize when it’s time to take a break. Listen to your community. Everyone grows together so it’s easy to get a sense of where everyone’s at. Be reciprocal in giving support. Some installations are harder than others, but I rely on the community to help.