'I know my duty': Indigenous artists take on responsibility confronting MMIW issues

While it’s important to get the stories of MMIW out through arts and culture made by Indigenous people to battle stereotypes, some artists say it’s at the expense of telling a more thoughtful and nuanced story of the Indigenous experience.
How virtual reality tells the story of Matilda Wilson in the Highway of Tears documentary: filmmaker Lisa Jackson 0:51
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The Current's MMIW public forum in Vancouver + web chat

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"They're not just a statistic. They're people. They're little girls. When they were going up, they were bubbly and everything. They had plans to go somewhere, to do something."

Matilda Wilson's 16-year-old daughter Ramona disappeared on June 11, 1994. She left her home in Smithers, B.C., to meet friends and was never seen again.

It's a story that is told in The Current's virtual documentary, Highway of Tears. The documentary was directed Anishinaabe filmmakerLisa Jackson who says virtual reality technology is powerful because it means the viewer is implicated.

Watch The Current's VR documentary

Matilda Wilson holds up a picture of her youngest child, Ramona, who disappeared in 1994. She wants justice for her daughter's unsolved murder. (CBC)

Jackson, whose mother went to residential schools, says at a young age she felt a "driving force" to contribute to telling the story of Indigenous people.

"Like anyone that's our family, you know in an extended sense everything that's happening whether or not I'm directly connected with it, I feel a responsibility to do something."

She tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that it's a big responsibility that can take a toll.

"There is fatigue and there's a sense of like , 'Wow we're seeing one side of the story.' On the other hand I also think about the fact that what we do see in the media about Indigenous people is a certain side of the story and there are many issues, and that is what I mostly focus on is things that can be improved, things that aren't right."

This film still is from SNARE, a performance-based piece that captures the brutality of violence against Indigenous women, as well as the possibility of healing and grace. Filmmaker Lisa Jackson says she wanted to 'take your breath away and you would feel it in your body. ' (Courtesy of Lisa Jackson)

For Hip hop artist Jerilynn Webster — also known as JB the First Lady — the underlying political message is not a burden but a motivation.

"I'm ready to like yell on the mountain tops and protect our women and our children and like I'm ready to go. Like I will bring the people together and I will put my fist in the air," Webster tells Tremonti.

Webster is Nuxalk and Onondaga and says her home territory of 30,000 people went down to 300 in one month due to smallpox.

"For me I'm not supposed to be here," Webster says.

Webster is grateful for her community, for teaching, and  practicing her culture and says this is what revitalizes her to be "ready and willing to work for the people."

"I know my role and I know my duty here as an Indigenous empowered woman."

Webster says it's important to her to include the power of urgency in her music.

"The time is now. I need to go find her."

From L to R: Filmmaker and actor Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson, and hip hop artist Jerilynn Webster known as JB the First Lady: The Current's panelists in Vancouver for a public forum discussing the role of the arts in sharing MMIW stories. (Wendy D Photo)

Filmmaker and actor Elle-Maija Tailfeathers says it's not as much an obligation to confront MMIW issues in her art as it is a reflection of reality Canadian Indigenous women face.

"But there's this challenge of being an Indigenous artist and always having to I guess respond to colonialism, having to respond to trauma, having to respond to deficits," Tailfeathers tells Tremonti.

"As I grow as an artist I feel that I have a huge responsibility to focus on the positive, to focus on the resilience, on the strength, and the resistance, and the resurgence because ultimately it is about the relationship I have with my audience."

Tailfeathers is Blackfoot from the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta and hopes Indigenous youth and members of her community will look at the art she creates and feel empowered.

"Or at least not feel like they're being portrayed as the same sort of ugly narratives that we've seen over and over and over again."

For Tailfeathers, there's an emotional and mental burden as an Indigenous women and artist to educate others.

"I've been asked to talk about this issue so many times and it feels like listening to a broken record in a lot of ways, just hearing my voice over and over and over again … I can only imagine what it's like for family members who've been talking about this issue for decades now."

Being stuck in this cycle has Tailfeathers asking, when will there be change?

"How much of this burden of responsibility, of educating, of talking about it, do our people have to bear before Canadians are going to get it?"

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post.

This public forum was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath, Josh Bloch, Cathy Simon and Kathleen Goldhar.