sensory, material, & digital anthropology
This post originates in a larger body of research exploring the ways in which Indigenous identities have been translated and refracted in online contexts as part of the ongoing Idle No More Campaign in Canada. The research sought to understand how the visual and material manifestations of contemporary and historical Indigeneity, brandished in protest, could function as identity markers on social media sites. These digital objects became sites for discussion and negotiation about what Indigenous solidarity, and furthermore, a shared Canadian identity, might look like.
‘Walking With Our Sisters’ is a commemorative art installation and campaign which began in 2012 to raise awareness of the estimated six hundred cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada in the past two decades, many of them unsolved . It is also a protest against what is perceived to be systemic discrimination across North America towards Indigenous women, reflected in the number of cases themselves and further effected in the ‘inadequate inquiry into their disappearance or murders paid by the media, the general public, politicians and even law enforcement’ (ibid.). It follows earlier grassroots campaigns raising awareness of the violence and discrimination against Indigenous women in Canada such as ‘Tears 4 Justice’ (see Fig.7) and ‘Families of Sisters in Spirit’ . The objectives of Walking With Our Sisters (hereafter WWOS) are synonymous with the call for change that the Indigenous ‘Idle No More’ campaign advocates,
‘[To] Actively resist violence against women and hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and involve Indigenous women in the design, decision-making, process and implementation of this inquiry, as a step toward initiating a comprehensive and coordinated national action plan.’ 
WWOS is acutely poignant at present after the death of Loretta Saunders in March of this year. Loretta was an Inuk student of criminology at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, who was herself researching cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada for her thesis. Her death has prompted the Indigenous Nationhood Movement to launch the #ItEndsHere campaign, and highlights the ease with which individual cases can be quickly forgotten rather than addressed by the government as part of an ongoing national crisis.
The WWOS project began with an open invitation for individuals to make ‘vamps,’ the beaded upper sections of moccasins, to result in a collaborative art installation that would travel internationally. In June 2012 the project advertised a general call for vamps to be made and donated, with a total target of six hundred, to represent the number of number of women missing and murdered; however, it has since received donations of over sixteen hundred moccasin vamps (ibid). The WWOS’ website explains the symbolic and commemorative intent of the project:
‘Each pair of vamps (or “uppers” as they are also called) represents one missing or murdered Indigenous woman. The unfinished moccasins represent the unfinished lives of the women whose lives were cut short. Together the installation represents all these women; paying respect to their lives and existence on this earth. They are not forgotten. They are sisters, mothers, aunties, daughters, cousins, grandmothers, wives and partners. They have been cared for, they have been loved, they are missing and they are not forgotten.’
The project can be seen to provide visual, material and social commemorative ‘spaces’ to remember the missing and murdered Indigenous women by those who have been affected. As a section of Canadian society who are perceived as ‘invisible’ in the national consciousness and ‘forgotten’ when their cases go unrecognised or unreported (Culhane 2009: 76), the ideological agenda in which these collective and individual actions and engagements take place is inherently political. The project offers a way of symbolically restoring the individual and political identities of the missing and murdered women and visibly driving them into public view. As a political statement about federal neglect of First Nations populations in Canada, it also constitutes a larger political expression about the representation of contemporary Indigenous women. Through identifying with the aims and values of the project, and a shared sense of loss and injustice, supporters of WWOS have created a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous solidarity across North America and internationally.
While not all participants involved in the project are female, and it has mobilised both Indigenous and non-Indigenous support, I focus here on the representations of Indigenous women’s identities as they are mediated online. I interpret the demonstration of shared initiative and visual and material production of WWOS as articulations of collective identity and a negotiation of what it means to be an Indigenous woman in the present. I also consider the ways in which the online social media of WWOS provides an arena in which to assert a political voice and challenge mainstream representations of Indigenous women.
WWOS attests to being ‘an entirely crowd sourced project.’  Information and updates on the project have been disseminated primarily through its official website  and it gained publicity and participants through its Facebook group page, which has over eighty five hundred members. Since its inception it has also received regional and national news coverage across Canada. The Facebook group page can be seen to represent and function as the main locus of activity for supporters of the project, where individuals post photographs of their vamps in progress and project administrators use it to document the vamps that they receive, archiving photos of them in the group’s albums. Group members post comments relating to their vamps, have discussions around materials and creative techniques, debate topical events, and share media and links to information relating to issues surrounding the experiences of Indigenous women. They also use it as a space to arrange offline gatherings and social occasions to meet and sew their vamps collectively in what are often called ‘beading circles’(Edge 2011: 157). In this way there is a dynamic relationship between online and offline activity and the social relations which are constituted and affirmed both publicly and privately.
Beading and Historical Connectivity
The process of making moccasin vamps for WWOS has inspired many Indigenous women to employ or learn traditional beading techniques as deliberate expressions of Indigenous identity. By using these traditional materials and techniques, individuals draw on identifiable traditional Indigenous aesthetics and can be seen to use this material manifestation of traditional knowledge to symbolically identify with generations of Aboriginal women who historically created moccasins and made beadwork (Edge ibid. 173). Women who made vamps for the project have articulated the symbolic and historical connection they feel by adopting artistic traditions, one individual shared her perception of practicing beadwork as partaking in ‘the humble and shared responsibility of contributing to family, relations, nation and keeping our tradition of art-making in my family alive’ (Fig.3).
The artist situates herself within a context of both a personal genealogical lineage of beadwork traditions, which she sees as ‘entrenched in the bloodlines’ of her family, as well as identifying with a cultural and ‘national’ family of Indigenous people (ibid.). While beadwork is conceived as personal expression of identity and nucleus of her family life as an Aboriginal woman, it is also represented here as cultural heritage and an Indigenous identity marker, a means of situating oneself in and affiliating with an Indigenous artistic ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983). In this way it is possible to interpret not only the visuality of vamps as referencing traditional techniques and visually and symbolically transcending time, but the process of making itself as a social activity which is conceived as invoking past communities and identities.
Some of the beadwork sewn onto the vamps references, or is executed in, geographically specific styles affiliated with particular Indigenous tribes, using recognisable motifs inspired by historical traditions, such as Métis floral beadwork. When photographs representing older beadwork styles are posted online, the vamps are often praised for their ‘traditional’ aesthetics and valued for technical skill required to create them (Fig.2, 4-5) (Edge ibid. 193).
It is possible to interpret the intellectual and material processes of making involved in constructing moccasin vamps as a form of ‘knowledge repatriation’ of traditional Indigenous expertise (Farrell Racette 2007: 61). I use this phrase to refer to the ways in which individuals have reclaimed previously forgotten or unfamiliar traditional art forms and through practising these skills have regained cultural knowledge surrounding Indigenous artistic traditions (Farrell Racette 2009: 302). In the context of WWOS, the repatriation of traditional artistic knowledge can be seen as a means through which some Indigenous women reconnect with aspects of their cultural history and use this experience as a way of articulating a contemporary Indigenous identity. Sherry Farrel Racette has described the re-learning of old techniques in the present as a form of cultural revitalisation and reclamation for First Nations women, against the historical context of the colonial suppression of Indigenous culture and traditional art forms (ibid. 293). The adoption of traditional techniques by participants can therefore be seen as a clear communication of the contemporary vitality of artistic practice used as a marker of cultural continuity which strengthens conceptions of contemporary Indigenous identity.
Fig.5 shows vamps submitted to WWOS made from the traditional technique of birch bark biting, which generated comments by Facebook users such as ‘So happy to see this art form alive and well’ and ‘So glad this art is still present today.’ In this way, ‘traditional’ techniques are woven into a discourse of cultural continuity and historic connection with the land and its resources, so that the vamps themselves come to stand for a reinvigoration of cultural values. Contemporary articulations of Indigenous identity, symbolised by material practices, can be seen to be framed against the backdrop of a historic cultural loss of tangible and intangible heritage and Canadian assimilation policy. The conception of historical loss experienced as on-going and present in daily life provides a way of interpreting Indigenous articulations of identity in WWOS as related to an ideology of cultural resilience and reinvigoration in the face of historic and contemporary cultural marginalisation. Such explicit references to cultural endurance are illustrated in Fig.6 in which a group member writes,
‘Made these for all our Sisters. They are made of elk, simulated wampum and glass seed beads in the colours of wampum. They reference the Mi’kmaq creation story and call us to remember the original women of Wabanaqiq who’ve been surviving and resisting since invasion.’
Here the symbolic materiality of wampum shell bead is used to signify traditional Indigenous artistic resources as well as the political uses of wampum belt in First Nations diplomacy. The artist references the ‘original women of Wabanaqiq’, attesting to a perceived cultural continuity and sustained resilience persisting throughout colonisation and into contemporary lives of Indigenous people. The material production of vamps by Indigenous artists can in itself be understood as conveying ideas about material existence and attesting to physical permanence against ideas of cultural loss or contemporary invisibility.
The practice of beadwork by Aboriginal women is situated as a tradition which is historically associated with social and cultural healing and undertaken in times of crisis. In the context of WWOS, I consider ‘healing’ to refer both to individual and community experiences of mourning and finding ways in which to grieve the loss of Aboriginal women, as well as cultural healing, which is perceived as a continuing process of cultural and psychological decolonization of First Nations peoples in Canada (Farrell Racette 2007: 59-60). Sherry Farrell Racette has discussed the continuation of artistic and technical legacies by First Nations women as historically and contemporaneously providing a cathartic space, ‘the power of the creative process to provide respite in times of trouble’ and ‘the enduring ability of women to create sacred moments through artistic expression’ (ibid. 302). For some Indigenous women, choosing to engage in the creative process of making vamps can be seen as a meaningful decision to situate oneself within and draw upon culturally specific, and historically rooted, social and material means of coping with experiences of trauma.
Sensory Engagement and Defining Social Space
The act of socially making beadwork whilst participating in beading circles has also been linked to ideas of cultural revitalisation and the strengthening of Indigenous identities. Lois Edge has described beading and beading circles as contributing to the social wellbeing of Indigenous women,
‘It is my belief that our identity and integrity as Indigenous women is intricately woven and embedded within the threadwork of beadwork. The beading circles presented an opportunity to actively engage in a traditional cultural activity and to learn about traditional cultural activities and art forms.’ (Edge ibid. 118)
She also describes beading circles as a socially and culturally defined space in which Indigenous women can reconcile aspects of their identities and express themselves, identifying as Indigenous on personally prescribed terms,
‘The beading circle participants shared experiences implicit within their lives as Indigenous women, the explicit struggle and challenge to maintain and retain identity and integrity as Indigenous women in a social context where Indigenous peoples are poorly understood, where negative stereotypes or misperceptions prevail and where oftentimes there exists an apathy, limited or absence of awareness or understanding concerning the histories or aspirations of either Indigenous women or Indigenous peoples.’ (Ibid.122-123)
Beading circles are seen to represent spaces outside of mainstream society where Indigenous women are able to realise aspects of their own identities and be understood by others. In this context it is possible to view WWOS as providing both social and ideological respite for Indigenous women to forge their own channels in which to express their identities and in relation to others who are affected in the same ways. Organiser of the project, Christi Belcourt, has commented on how women affected by the issues raised by the project have conceptualised the process of making vamps as involving personal experiences of ‘transformation and healing and grieving.’ [LINK http://walkingwithoursisters.ca/news/radio-coverage/ Christi Belcourt speaking in an interview with Lisa Laco on ‘Superior Morning’, for CBC News, 9/8/2013, quote begins at 4:03 minutes.] Her view suggests that the project has provided people with a way to exercise individual embodied agency in a situation where they perceived themselves to have little social or political power. The material engagement, combined with the social activity of beading is conceived as healing the sense of incapacity felt by those involved in the project and a means of empowerment.
One artist expressed how her sensory engagement with the materials whilst making her vamps helped her to find psychological clarity in which to ‘meditate’ on the women commemorated in the project,
‘For me as a new media artist and singer/songwriter who rarely makes physical objects, the opportunity to have a daily dialogue with beads, thread, leather, felt, shells to move around as I meditated on oh so many of our sisters, cousins, aunties, daughters, mothers has had a profound impact on my heart and still touches me deep to my core.’ (Fig.7)
She expresses a connection between the material process of making vamps and a therapeutic experience, and can be seen to place emotional value on her tactile engagements. In a discussion of the ways in which online amateur photographs mediate personal experience, Sarah Pink has stated ‘The (remembered/imagined) embodied and affective experiences associated with the moments in which the images were taken [are] thus represented in the present’ (Pink 2011: 98). The photograph taken by the artist provides a means for re-accessing her embodied, affective experience with the materials of her vamps. This can be further interpreted by drawing upon Nadia Seremetakis’ work on the relationship between the senses and memory (1996). Seremetakis describes the capacity for artifacts to bear within them emotional and historical meanings which can be re-accessed through sensory perception, employing the term ‘stillness’ to refer to the perceptual compression of space and time when sensory memory is evoked (ibid. 7). In this way it is possible to interpret the sensory, physical motion of beading as an activity which allowed individuals to meditate on the Indigenous women and invest their vamps with personal meaning through an embodied experience with the materials. Participants in WWOS can therefore be seen to express an embodied connection with the missing and murdered women through the materiality of the vamps. The concept of an embodied relationship to the missing and murdered women is extended into the design of the art installation itself. As the WWOS website explains, the vamps will be laid down in a path along the floor of the exhibition and visitors will be asked to remove their shoes and walk alongside the women whose lives the vamps represent. 
This embodied relationship to the vamps is continued through online media in the way in which digital photographs are socially activated and given meaning. Elizabeth Edwards has attested to the sociality of photographs as material objects, ‘photographs are not merely a result of social relations but active within them, maintaining, reproducing and articulating shifting relations’ (Edwards 2005: 29); I carry this notion into an analysis of the potential of photographs posted in WWOS as a means for negotiating Indigenous identities in public arenas. Some individuals expressed an emotional embodied response to the symbolism represented in photographs of the vamps, ‘So stark, so beautiful. Brought me to tears! Thank you’, ‘I can hardly breathe looking at these two pair of most powerful images’ (Fig.10). In response to a photograph of vamps posted online, one group member stated ‘this beadwork reminds me of mom’ (Fig.4). I perceive this as an expression of the mnemonic potential of the aesthetic style of beadwork to bring to mind past ‘sensory memory’ which the individual associates with the beadwork made by her mother and linked to her individual Indigenous identity (Seremetakis ibid.). Her perception of the visual qualities of the beadwork as represented through the digital image, can be seen to represent the compression of the sensory lapse experienced by individuals who are reengaging with the beadwork that previous generations practiced, what Seremetakis describes as cultural ‘nostalgia’(ibid. 4).
Facebook Photos as Media for Indigenous Knowledge
Photographs posted and viewed online also become embedded in different layers of meaning and become a focus for the intersection of different types of knowledge which are brought to bear on the images for the translation of Indigenous identities. Fig.8 shows a photograph of a vamp in the process of being beaded, uploaded by its creator. The artist has sewn a phrase in Inuktitut, which she explains means ‘Our older sisters’, and another group member then amends her sentence and provides the correct alphabet in a comment beside the image (ibid.). I interpret the use of Inuktitut here as an expression of independent Indigenous identity because the fostering and reinvigoration of Indigenous languages in Canada is interpreted by First Nations people as a means of cultural restoration and means for strengthening a sense of connectedness to historical Aboriginal identities. Kyra Landezelius’ concepts of ‘inreach’ and ‘outreach’ provide a conceptual framework for the kinds of processes that take place in the online mediation of Indigenous identities (ibid. 5). ‘Inreach’ refers to the ways in which individuals generate a sense of community and belonging among Indigenous members with information specifically targeted for Indigenous audiences, while ‘outreach’ is used to describe the process of translation and outward presentation of Indigenous identity for ‘others’ (ibid.). In this way the artist can be seen to assert a claim over her language as intangible cultural heritage and present a message which is aimed at only those viewers able to read Inuktitut, as a means of articulating cultural difference. It can also be read as active boundary maintenance, ensuring that some meanings and knowledge are reserved for Indigenous participants of WWOS.
The digital photograph also becomes a site for the translation of knowledge. Another Facebook user has written ‘I cannot read these. May I please ask you for a translation into either English or French?’ (ibid.). It is not clear if this request is posted by a non-Indigenous group member or by a First Nations individual who is unfamiliar with the Inuktitut language, however another user later writes ‘thank you for the translation for those of us who unfortunately don’t know our own language’ (ibid.). This comment can be seen to be directed at First Nations people from the use of ‘us’ and ‘our own language’ to express remorse at a perceived loss of cultural heritage and implied importance of knowing and reclaiming Indigenous languages in contributing towards a sense of contemporary cultural identity. The photograph becomes a site of translation, both literal and symbolic; it generates a sense of cultural pride in Indigenous languages, perceived as a symbol of Indigenous vitality, as well as a site for cross-cultural negotiation and sharing of meanings. In this way the photographic object became a point of contact for cultural transmission. I use the term ‘contact’ to draw upon James Clifford’s implementation of the concept of ‘contact zones’ to describe the ways in which museums, and more specifically, the objects in their collections, become points of translation and mediation ‘sites of a historical negotiation, occasions for an on-going contact’ (Clifford 1997: 194).The exchanges that take place online are rooted in cultural and social locales and identity politics, and the engagements which take place around photographs online can be seen as a fluid extension of the lived offline experiences of First Nations peoples.
I interpret the use of Facebook pages to archive digital photographs by members of WWOS as a form of ‘Indigenous Media’. Faye Ginsburg attests to Indigenous media production as means for Indigenous groups to inflect hegemonic representations generated by mainstream or state media and as a persuasive tool for political activism and achieving visibility in national and global contexts (Ginsburg ibid. 8-9). Ginsburg cites the media generated as a means for Indigenous expression and addressing community-based issues (ibid. 46) as well as the activity of media-making itself an act of empowerment (ibid. 44). In this way, the act of generating visual and textual content for WWOS online can be perceived as conscious alternative form of communication in a context where Indigenous Women’s voices are perceived as silenced, unheard, ‘conspicuously absent’ (Farrell Racette 2009: 285) or where they are reduced to derogative stereotypes in national discourses (Culhane ibid. 77). While it is difficult to categorise the internet and Facebook themselves as Indigenous media, because to some degree they define the format in which content is produced and organised, it is possible to conceive them as platforms for media which has been conceptualised and created by Indigenous peoples can be transmitted (Wilson and Stewart ibid. 2).The website and Facebook pages of WWOS interpreted in the context of Indigenous media production can therefore be seen to provide discursive spaces in which to reinsert the voices of Aboriginal women in a way ‘that not only helps to overcome earlier processes of cultural subordination but offers persuasive means for fostering alternative images and identities of modern Aboriginality’ (Nicholson 2003: 1). Fig.9 shows a photograph of a pair of vamps presented on the WWOS website with the artist’s ‘story’ printed underneath, in which she writes
‘I couldn’t help but think about how ineffective national political organisations have been in trying to get some movement on raising awareness and bringing justice to the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada…I hope that when this gets exhibited general society will be gifted with an important message of urgency and suspicion as to why more isn’t being done’.
The artist can be seen to use the online website space as both a channel to self-consciously express her views and ‘raise awareness’ in an alternative media and to express a political stance. The opportunity to have her account of Aboriginal experience and Aboriginal relationships with the political establishment, mediated online can be perceived as a way of engaging with wider imagined audiences (Wilson and Stewart ibid. 18) and exercising personal agency as a form of resistance (Buddle ibid. 139). I interpret this project of articulating Aboriginal views online through user-generated content, to promote specific cultural agendas, to constitute a form of identity construction and validation (Fleras ibid. 200).
Fig.10 shows a photograph of a pair of vamps uploaded to the WWOS Facebook page, the design of which can be seen to draw on a discourse of the invisibility of Aboriginal women in Canadian national consciousness and the official neglect of the cases of missing and murdered women. The phrase ‘HELLO MY NAME IS: Who Cares’ positioned to half conceal the face of a women can be read as a poignant visual communication about the perceived anonymity of Aboriginal women in media reception of the cases of missing and murdered women in Canada. It confronts the idea that Aboriginal women are not perceived as valid members of wider Canadian society and symbolically forces them into visibility, as Culhane has articulated, the ‘recognition of social suffering in Canada elicits profound discomfort in a liberal democratic nation state’ (ibid. 89). In this way the Facebook page supports the transmission of an Indigenous message that expresses the need for majority Canadian society to engage in self-critical reflection about the treatment and misrepresentation of Aboriginal women. In an analysis of the political activism surrounding the degradation of inner-city Aboriginal women in Vancouver, Dara Culhane has described the effort to ‘change the language, metaphors, and images through which they come to be (re)known as they emerge into public visibility’ (ibid. 76-7). I believe that the use of social media by members of WWOS as Indigenous media constitutes a similar process of controlling the re-representations Indigenous women in public space, re-inscribing their identities with social value, and through representing them, identifying with them.
by AMY KING
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