Northern Lights College hosted an international talk this week about missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Helen Knott, director of Indigenous Education at the college, hosted a virtual one-on-one with fellow advocate Agnes Woodward for a conversation about the May 5 National Day of Awareness, represented by the symbol of a red dress meant to bring attention to the ongoing crisis.
Originally from Saskatoon, Woodward is from Kawacatoose First Nation (Treaty 4) and now lives in North Dakota, where she works as the director of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Storytelling Project through Seeding Sovereignty, a non-profit advocacy organization.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to investigating something as big as this epidemic. Families should always be considered through every process, and just speaking about that has brought me to where I am with my position,” Woodward said. “Working directly with families, always trying to create new ways of showing that we do awareness. We can do artwork, but we can also consider families and how they feel.”
Woodward says her aunt was the victim of a murder in 1982, while her own mother was taken from her family during the Sixties Scoop, and her father a residential school survivor. She says her family decided to put her aunt’s name on the list for Canada’s National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women when it first began.
“I didn’t know that she was murdered; it’s something that my family has carried for a long time, and never really discussed, and that’s coming from a generation of parents and grandparents that don’t talk about the details of their experiences, the things that hurt them,” said Woodward. “It’s easier just to continue on day to day without acknowledging or talking about those things.”
Woodward says it’s been a long journey coming to understand how that impacted her own childhood, but she was determined to create some good from it. Her experiences led her to create traditional ribbon skirts as a way to unpack and heal from intergenerational trauma.
She has created nearly 400 skirts in her quest to help others heal, a tool she says is ultimately meant to empower. Her first skirt was created with her mother and is decorated with seven Indigenous women; sisters, both living and passed on, including her aunt.
“It’s been an honour to offer that and extend that same love and comfort that I put in the first skirt to so many other family members,” she said. "As tragic as the story that my family carries is, making that decision to add my aunt, to talk about those difficult things, to bring up the memories, also put my family on a really beautiful path of healing."
Knott says she’d like to see less biased media coverage of First Nations tragedies and feels that murdered indigenous get far less consideration when compared to their counterparts, citing a study she read.
"Quite often Indigenous would end up on the fourth or fifth page and they would have a very small write-up, while their counterparts would be on the front page, and they would have large write-ups," she said. "Even the words that were used to describe them, from the difference terms of profile, Indigenous women would be 'nice' or something very small that didn't speak to the individual."
Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative, Alaska Highway News