Yukon woman sews memorial blanket to honour children who died at residential school

·2 min read
Velma Olsen gifted the memorial blanket to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on Aug. 9. (Minnie Clark Photography - image credit)
Velma Olsen gifted the memorial blanket to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on Aug. 9. (Minnie Clark Photography - image credit)

For Velma Olsen, art and cultural practices have been healing in processing news involving residential schools.

It's why she spent two and a half months sewing together a blanket covered with over 400 moccasin vamps, or uppers, in memory of the children who never made it home from the schools.

"Art is just another way to keep our culture alive," said Olsen, who is Northern Tutchone and a member of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun in Yukon.

She started the project, which she calls For the Children Lost, following the discovery in May of unmarked burials adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said in July approximately 200 potential burial sites have been identified using ground-penetrating radar.

Submitted by Velma Olson
Submitted by Velma Olson

Hoping to spark some community involvement, Olsen put a call out on Facebook for children's vamps to be incorporated in the blanket.

"I was thinking about the mothers and fathers that had their children taken from them and how they would feel," she said.

"I was seeing all the baby shoes that were being put on church steps all across Canada . . . I wanted to see moccasins and this was my way of doing that."

Submitted by Velma Olsen
Submitted by Velma Olsen

Hundreds of people from around the world answered Olsen's call, including students at Major Pratt School in Russell, Man.

Art instructor Robyn Nerbas said she learned about the project through Facebook and shared it with the school's Indigenous studies teacher as a way to involve their students in discussions around residential schools. They ended up mailing seven vamps that became a part of the completed blanket.

"Even though we live in rural Manitoba, it is important for our students to understand and participate in important national current events such as this," said Nerbas.

"Beading a vamp for this project was a little step towards a better understanding of what Canada's Indigenous people have and are going through."

Submitted by Robyn Nerbas
Submitted by Robyn Nerbas

The blanket, which is roughly 2 by 2 metres, was given to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on Aug. 9 when the Warriors Walk for Healing Nations concluded its six week walk from Yukon to B.C., honouring children and residential school survivors.

"I'm really still in awe," said Olsen.

"I actually had to take a few days and almost grieve for the blanket. I really missed it but knowing that I got to take it to Tk'emlúps First Nation makes me very happy."

She said vamps are still arriving in the mail, and she is working on a second blanket that will remain in Yukon.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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