Thunder Bay·Audio

The Grandmother Earth Dress: her 'strong presence' gives healing to families of MMIWG

Although the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has issued its final report, the Grandmother Earth Dress will continue her work, says her creator, Collin Graham, a community development program manager with the Ontario Native Women's Association in Thunder Bay.

Spirit dress 'dances with women who have been murdered on Turtle Island,' prompts discussion of colonialism

Collin Graham, a community development program manager with the Ontario Native Women's Association in Thunder Bay, says the idea for the Grandmother Earth Dress came to him in the months leading up to hearings in the city by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Although the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)  has issued its final report, the Grandmother Earth Dress will continue her work, says her creator Collin Graham.

"She now dances with the women who have been lost or murdered on Turtle Island, " explained the community development manager with the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA) in Thunder Bay, Ont.

"She's a spirit dress, and she was constructed with the intent to let women in our community know we still care about them, that we miss them and that we love them."

'So much story in this dress'

The Grandmother Earth Dress, a red jingle dress, has brought comfort to many families who testified at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Graham said the vision for the red jingle dress, which is traditionally "a healing dress" came to him in a ceremony shortly before the inquiry was due to hold hearings in Thunder Bay, and was partially inspired by the REDress Project of Métis artist Jaime Black.

At the time, he thought getting the dress made would be the difficult part, but "I wasn't anticipating that the work was just beginning at that point."

The work is emotional, said Graham, explaining "there is so much story in this dress."

"What was most impactful for me, and what I wasn't prepared for, is how people connected to the Grandmother Earth Dress."

'Strong presence' comes from her silence

Family members, whose daughters, sisters and mothers have been killed or are missing told Graham that looking at the dress brought them peace because "they could actually picture their loved ones in this red dress," rather than seeing only the horrific image described by police or the coroner.

"It was comforting for them to know that this dress was never to be worn in this realm. It's a spirit dress, so it is solely intended for those women who are murdered or lost."

The dress has also received gifts such as a hairbrush, earrings, a drum and an eagle feather, but none of those items will ever be used by a living person, said Graham. They become part of the bundle, which travels with her wherever she goes. She has appeared at MMIWG hearings and at discussions around human trafficking. 

"She definitely has a strong presence when she's in a room, and I think that strong presence comes from her silence," he said, adding she has had a powerful impact on his life as well.

'Be brave,' start the difficult but healing conversations

"The Grandmother Earth Dress is something that has called me back to understanding my identity and my identity in culture and how all of us have an inherent responsibility to add to the bundle of culture."

But as much as the dress is a healer, Graham believes her role as a teacher may be just as important. As an example he points out that the dress is decorated with 365 jingles to show the daily violence many women face.

For Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians "walking together sometimes means reaching out," he said, noting the dress educates by serving as a starting point for a discussion around the shared experience of colonialism.

'She's still out there'

"We need to be brave and start having difficult conversations and through those conversations we'll find the opportunity to heal together."

Graham said he has learned through ceremony that he may eventually be called upon to put the dress to rest. But until then, "she's still out there, doing the work that she does."

You can hear the full story of the Grandmother Earth Dress from CBC Superior Morning here.

She is a healer, a teacher and a silent witness. And she dances with all the missing and murdered Indigenous women. We hear about the Grandmother Earth Dress, created by the Ontario Native Women's Association. 7:05