The Walking with Our Sisters travelling art installation honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women is making a lasting impression on Thunder Bay, according to local organizers.

"It's more than an exhibit, it's more than beautiful artwork," said volunteer Kristie Williams. "When you go through the installation you can see some of the stories come out."

Kristie Williams

Volunteer Kristie Williams says the Walking With Our Sisters art installation allows visitors to see missing and murdered women "as people and not statistics." (Jody Porter/CBC)

The exhibit includes hundreds of carefully beaded vamps (moccasin tops) representing the unfinished lives of Indigenous women who are missing or dead. They are displayed in a ceremonial space created by organizers within the walls of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

"There's just a sacredness in that space and that sacredness was created in ceremony and it all goes back to the guiding principles of everyone being equal and everyone doing this out of their hearts," said Leanna Sigsworth, one of the lead coordinators.

'We're all related'

"Because...we want the people who have been affected by having a missing person or a family member that has been murdered feel that support," she said. "So that's what we hope we're doing."

Williams helps welcome visitors to the space and said she has been heartened by their interest.

"It's been a really wonderful experience seeing how the community has shown a sincere interest and not just visiting Walking With Our Sisters but learning what the significance...is for all of us and how in the end, we're all related," Williams said.

Organizers have also put a lot of effort into outreach, including beading workshops and community conversations. Volunteer coordinator Diana Lidemark said people are invited to create their own beadwork on a small felt heart.

Beaded hearts

Some of the many beaded hearts created during 'bead and read' workshops held in the city as part of Walking With Our Sisters. They will become a community art project. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"We have been to school groups, to elderly groups, to needle guilds, to all kinds of groups that wanted to share with us," Lidemark said. "I think that for each of those groups it was really important for them to have their say and to tell their stories on their own hearts."

'Far-reaching effects'

Thunder Bay police officers were among those who tried their hands at beading. Lidemark said officers she spoke with were excited about the effort to educate people on the causes of missing and murdered Indigenous women in order to prevent further tragedy.

"It's not what comes after, it's not the response," Lidemark said. "It's how we prevent and how we heal people who have had long term [losses], so I think those officers were excited about the far-reaching effects of it."

The beaded hearts will become part of a community art project. But Lidemark, Sigsworth and Williams agree that's just one of the many legacies of hosting Walking With Our Sisters. They say they've built long-term, supportive relationships through their involvement.

Lidemark said one of Walking With Our Sisters guiding principles of kindness and trying to enact that "has really changed how I live in the world." 

Community events associated with the exhibit continue through this weekend. A coffee house and silent auction takes place on Saturday and a closing-day ceremony will be held on Sunday.