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Rights + Justice

For Indigenous Women, Radical Art as a Last Resort

Films and images shed light on a violent reality too often ignored.

Katelyn Verstraten 22 Jun

Katelyn Verstraten is currently completing her degree at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in indigenous issues in Canada and internationally.

A man sprints down a deserted alley, away from a motorcyclist, only to reach a dead end. As the motorcycle screeches to a stop, a beautiful, leather-clad native woman jumps off and begins to beat up the man. The screen flashes, and the man appears as both a police officer and a thug interchangeably. When the woman is finished, she lights a cigarette and begins to speak.

"I've been on this warpath for six long, lonely years," she says. "White boys have been having their way with Indian girls since contact. Forget what Disney tells you -- Pocahontas was 12 when she met John Smith. It's pretty little lies like this that hide the ugly truth."

And so begins A Red Girl's Reasoning, a 10-minute film about a vigilante native woman seeking revenge on the privileged men who perpetrate violence against indigenous women with impunity.

Director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who is Blackfoot and Sámi, is one of many female indigenous artists bringing attention to violence against indigenous women in Canada through their art.

Canada's blind eye to violence

Since the 1960s, almost 600 indigenous women have been reported as missing or murdered in Canada, according to the Native Women's Association of Canada. In 2011, the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action and the Native Women's Association asked the United Nations to look into this human rights crisis.

Since this request was acknowledged by the UN, almost nothing has been heard about its status. It has been almost two years, and indigenous women continue to disappear.

In April 2013, a meeting of aboriginal affairs ministers from the provinces and territories in Canada was held in Winnipeg to discuss a national inquiry into the country's missing indigenous women. British Columbia representatives, in the middle of a re-election campaign, opted not to attend the meeting -- despite many of the missing indigenous women having disappeared from B.C.

At a cafe in Vancouver, Tailfeathers talked about Canadian society's ability to turn a blind eye to the violence.

"Violence against indigenous women globally is a huge problem," said Tailfeathers, taking a sip of her herbal tea. "But it's a big problem in Vancouver. It's something everybody knows about, but we [Canada] want to pretend it's not there."

Tailfeathers lives in East Vancouver. Hearing of the disappearances of indigenous women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside helped inspire her film.

Although neighbouring the touristic and increasingly affluent area of Gastown, the Downtown Eastside is one of Canada's poorest postal codes. According to the results of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, over 60 women have disappeared from its streets beginning in the 1980s through 2002 -- the majority of them marginalized women of indigenous heritage.

Flipping reality

The murdered and missing women motivated Tailfeathers to write the screenplay of A Red Girl's Reasoning and enter it in Vancouver's Crazy8s Film contest. She was selected as one of the six winners in 2012, and was one of two female indigenous winners in the contest.

"The film itself started as just a short story, just me writing an angry rant," she said. "I really wanted to see a strong native woman taking justice into her own hands. The state continues to ignore [violence against indigenous women] all together. We're second-rate citizens in this country."

Winning the Crazy8s film competition provided Tailfeathers with the financial and logistical means to produce her film.

Eric Paulsson is the executive director and producer for Crazy8s, as well as an award-winning filmmaker. He says that Crazy8s winners are selected first and foremost for the strength of their story pitches -- and he considers Tailfeathers' story one of the strongest.

The film was screened at film festivals across Europe, as well as across Canada. A Red Girl's Reasoning also recently won the Kodak Image Award at the 2013 Vancouver Women in Film Festival.

"I think she is one of the most talented young filmmakers in the country," he said. "I don't doubt that she's going to make her first feature in the next few years. And I don't doubt that that feature film will probably get premiered at Sundance. That's my prediction."

His one point of contention is the violence in the film. Paulsson is a peace activist, but respects Tailfeathers' artistic opinions.

In A Red Girl's Reasoning, the heroine hunts down a white man who has been sexually assaulting native women. She drugs him, ties him up, and douses him in gasoline. The film ends with the heroine lighting a cigarette and placing it in the man's mouth, leaving him with the decision -- swallow the cigarette and live with the injury, or drop it and burn to death.

"Some people ask how violence solves violence," she said. "But it's metaphorical violence. Indigenous women, particularly in Canada, particularly in Vancouver on the Downtown Eastside -- these women live violence on a daily basis. It was interesting to flip that reality."

Flipping this reality is part of what has made this film so successful. Although violence against native women may not easily attract Canada's attention, when native women act violently towards white men -- especially on the big screen -- people begin to take notice.

Film as a tool for anti-violence

On Dec. 17, 2012, Commissioner Wally Oppal released a 1,448-page report on Vancouver's missing and murdered women. He worked on the document, which cost a reported $9 million to complete -- for more than two years. The main finding: Vancouver police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Canadian justice system as a whole failed, and continues to fail, the missing women and their families.

Documentary film director Christine Welsh was disappointed with the Canadian public's reaction to these reports.

"The public reaction to the Oppal report was a resounding yawn," she said. "And that should concern all of us. Nobody cares that two police forces so badly, badly dropped the ball and five-dozen women lost their lives. Why aren't people screaming about that?"

Welsh is a Métis artist, and an associate professor of women's studies at the University of Victoria. She directed and wrote the 2006 documentary Finding Dawn with funding from the National Film Board of Canada.

The film begins in Vancouver with the disappearance of Dawn Crey, a woman from the Stó:lō Nation living on the Downtown Eastside. Her remains were found on the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton in 2002.

Welsh was reading the Globe and Mail when she saw a picture of Dawn's brother Ernie Crey standing outside Pickton's farm. It was the expression on his face that brought the film together.

"I'd been thinking about a film about violence against native women since the early '90s, and hadn't really known how I was going to approach it," Welsh said. "The specifics of it kind of came together in that moment."

Welsh thinks the problem isn't a lack of information about the missing women, but that the information is falling upon deaf ears.

"It's racism, but it's also a public apathy and devaluing of the lives of marginalized women," she said. "Nobody was paying attention. And so I felt like the film needed to address that lack of attention."

Welsh attempted to reach as broad an audience as possible with the film. She is pleased with the attention the documentary attracted, especially given the lack of attention she believes the Oppal report received from the public.

"I think the film did what it set out to do," she said. "Which was to raise the profile of the issue and to act as a tool for those doing that work. The film has been a tool for indigenous women's groups and anti-violence groups who continue to bring the issue forward."

Visual media more powerful than words

Marlene George, from the Tsimshian Nation, also believes in the strategic power of art. She was interviewed in Welsh's documentary.

"Art is more visually graphic and stimulating," George said. "The public inquiry document is over 1,000 pages, so it's pretty extensive. How many people would sit down and read it, really? They're more likely to watch a film on the same issue."

George has been one of the Annual Women's Memorial March organizers since 1997. The march has been held every Valentine's Day for the past 22 years to honour the missing and murdered women of the Downtown Eastside.

Elements of art can be found in the banners carried in the march. One of the largest is black and white, with female figures around the edges. It was designed and donated to the march by Cree artist Judy Chartrand.

The political and artistic go hand-in-hand, says Chartrand, and art has the ability to attract attention to this human rights issue.

"Art also tends to attract the press," she added. "And that helps to spread the cause to a larger audience."

Chartrand grew up on the Downtown Eastside in what she describes as "skid row". She first became involved in the march in the early '90s, when she was studying Fine Arts at Langara College. It was then that she noticed the paper signs and flimsy banners carried by participants.

"This stuck in my mind for quite awhile," said Chartrand. "I thought it would be nice if I could try to secure some fabric and create a couple of large, three-person banners for the next march."

Upon presenting the completed banners to march organizers, Chartrand was told the spirits of the missing women could be felt in the cloth of the banners. Spirits that include family members Chartrand personally lost on the Downtown Eastside.

There are also other elements of artistic expression in the march.

582px version of March quilt art
March participants carry the memorial quilt. Photo by Katelyn Verstraten.

"We use the colours of red and yellow roses," said George. "And burning of candles. We take pictures to some degree. And the memorial quilt is quite colourful."

A memorial quilt was designed and put together by fabric artist and activist Diane Wood. Members of the Downtown Eastside community contributed around 100 personalized, colourful panels to remember the missing women.

The use of artistic expression and the march has been noticed by academics in the field, like Dr. Anthony Shelton, director of Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology and professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

He believes there are elements of art involved in the ritual aspect of the ceremony, such as "taking back of the space" on the Downtown Eastside.

"The march is a symbolic expression of a space," he said. "But within the meaning of the women, of the people who participate in it. I think there's an art to ritual. And that's not to say it doesn't have economical and political and social meaning -- it has that as well."

Shelton believes art, particularly visual art, can be a powerful social advocacy tool, able to fuel public emotions about the missing and murdered women.

"I think visual media are far more powerful [than written reports] in terms of mobilizing people," he said.

'In numbers, there's power'

Métis visual artist Christi Belcourt was driving when the idea came to her. She would design moccasin tops, each pair representing one of the over 600 indigenous women reported missing or murdered in Canada over the last 30 years.

"You just reach a tipping point where you feel at a loss at the enormity of the situation," she said, hand-beading a moccasin top as she speaks. "And it just got to be so much. I've been affected so deeply by it."

A public call to the art community quickly snowballed into an enormous crowdsourcing project, with over 700 artists becoming involved -- including a beadwork group from Aberdeen, Scotland.

And that's how Belcourt became the curator for the exhibit "Walking With our Sisters." The moccasins will be displayed at over 17 locations across Canada in the next several years.

The project has brought some Canada's artistic, indigenous community together, Belcourt says.

"This is giving people an opportunity to help," she said. "All of these small gestures of care and of love that are coming from community people are translating into a large collective, collaborative project and piece. In numbers, there's power."

Although one of the aims of the exhibit is to bring attention to the human rights issue, Belcourt says the main goal is to honour the lives of the missing and murdered women.

"For the women themselves, they deserved better," she said. "This is what it's really about. Their lives are valuable, were valuable, and continue to be valuable to the people that were closest to them. It's an honouring, that's what it is."

582px version of Moccasins
More than 700 pairs of beaded moccasin tops have been designed to honour the missing women. Photo by Christi Belcourt.

Belcourt has been working with Elder and Metis artist Maria Campbell to ensure that traditional protocol is upheld during the exhibit. Visitors will remove their shoes and walk on lengths of cloth alongside the moccasin tops representing the missing women.

Music will be played, and tobacco will be available. In many indigenous communities tobacco is seen as a sacred offering.

"What I'm hoping is that people will come away with a sensory memory," said Belcourt. "Because they're required to walk carefully along this path."

And this, she hopes, will lead Canadians who might not be aware of this issue to discuss violence against indigenous women.

"Just even discussing it, getting people to talk about it is an important step in getting the broader public and Canada to deal with this issue seriously," said Belcourt.

Native chicks, kicking butt

For Tailfeathers, producing A Red Girl's Reasoning has been a cathartic experience. She too survived a sexual assault but never went to the justice system.

"I was scared," she said. "I was young, and didn't think that my voice counted. And I think that is the case with so many young women who get sexually assaulted, especially native women. If you don't think someone is going to listen than why even bother going to the police?"

Tackling the issue in a fictional action film, she thought, would attract a broader audience than a more serious documentary.

"Maybe [the average white male] would be more willing to tune into an action movie," said Tailfeathers. "I thought it would get people thinking -- and maybe the types of people who don't necessarily think about these kinds of things, or live this reality every day."

"I just wanted to see a native chick kick butt on the big screen," added Tailfeathers, smiling.

And through their art Tailfeathers, Welsh, Chartrand and Belcourt are "kicking butt." Many people have turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the news and written reports on violence towards indigenous women. Perhaps through art the violence and complicity of silence will become real -- and indigenous women will stand supported as they begin to take back their power.  [Tyee]

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