Bianca Bharti, Daily Herald
Da-namaamin moseyang giw-ganchigaazig kwewag in Anishinaabe translates to “we will walk in prayer for those murdered women” and it’s exactly what E Naad Maa Get, Niibin and Jacqueline Hines have been doing since December of last year.
Every day the trio has walked about 50 kilometres from their starting point in Neyaashiinigmiing — about 45 minutes away from Owen Sound, Ont. on the Bruce Peninsula — only stopping if weather prevents them.
Each morning begins with a ceremonial smudging of themselves and the prayer staff, part of waking it up. Then, they place cedar in their shoes to remind them to “walk in that good way and also for protection,” Niibin said.
Cedar is traditionally a woman’s medicine, E Naad Maa Get said, but it’s also a medicine of purity. With both the cedar and the prayer staff, the three walk in remembrance of all Indigenous women who’ve gone missing or have been murdered.
“It reminds us that this walk is a prayer walk,… that we’re walking in ceremony the entire time, that our path is protected by our ways and our culture and our tradition. It’s to reinforce our commitment to these women throughout this walk,” he said.
They dedicate each day they walk to a different Indigenous woman who has lost her life. While they have been walking close to Prince Albert, they walked for Amber Guiboche and Amber Redman.
Guiboche, from Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, went missing in November 2010 from Winnipeg, according to CBC.
Redman, from Fort Qu’Appelle, went missing in July 2005 and her remains were found May 2008. She was lured into a home where two men killed her after she left a bar, according the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
E Naad Maa Get, Niibin and Hines take turns walking about five kilometres each. Sometimes they’re joined by friends and people who’ve heard about them.
The journey started after E Naad Maa Get completed a water walk around his land in Ontario. He said he was the only man to volunteer from beginning to end, and throughout his walk, he learned about the hardships and vulnerabilities women face.
The goal, he said, was to show solidarity and say Indigenous people can address these issues themselves. Soon after, he was joined by Niibin who is from the same band, and Hines, who is originally from Pennsylvania but met E Naad Maa in Standing Rock.
Their walk across the country has led to memorable encounters — both negative and positive.
While traversing through Thunder Bay, Ont., people shouted racial slurs at Hines, who’s not of Indigenous descent. People came up to them, aggravated at the sight of their prayer staff.
But the three continued on. They keep their prayer staff with them at all times to remain in ceremony and guide the spirits they walk for, Hines said.
Just before they entered Saskatchewan, a man approached her as she was waiting in the car for the walkers to catch up and said “if you guys stop walking on the highway, you won’t go missing or murdered.”
Shocked by his brazen words, Hines said it was not a message that was true. Sure, there’s traffic and there might be animals, she said, but it’s victim shaming. “It’s not these women’s fault for being hurt.”
Despite the negativity faced, E Naad Maa Get said what sticks with them is the positivity and connections they build.
While in Thunder Bay, a 12-year-old girl donated her birthday money to help them buy supplies and continue on their journey. In Chapleau, Ont., while stuck in the middle of the road on a frigid winter day, a lady offered her home and a nice meal to the three.
“People have stopped and given us water and words of encouragement,” Niibin said. When faced with inquiring minds, they always take time to inform individuals about their cause and why missing and murdered Indigenous women have become such an epidemic.
“Each of these women, we may not know them… but each of them is a part of us,” E Naad Maa Get added. “With each woman that goes missing, that’s many generations they would have held within them. With each of those generations (gone), that robs our future of potential growth we could have had.”
As they walk each step, they try to humanize every woman they walk for.
Often in reports on missing and murdered Indigenous women, it only talks about a “high-risk” lifestyle the women have led and how a lot of them were sex workers, Niibin said. “But it doesn’t mention how they were mothers… how they were shawl dancers, how they would joke around, how they were beacons in their family. So we try to honour them… and make sure they’re not forgotten.”
With each new woman they walk for, Niibin and the rest connect to her in some shape or form. Sometimes Niibin will look at a picture and think, “that looks like my aunty, that looks like my sister, that looks like my cousin.”
At times it can get overwhelming, so they turn to traditional medicine and talk to each other. “We’ve become a little family,” she said. They will often go to sweat lodges. People invite them to ceremony and feast.
However, because they walk for a different woman almost every day, stories and individuals begin to blur together. “A lot of their stories are the same,” E Naad Maa Get said. There are stories of women getting pushed down laundry chutes, thrown down balconies or even run over. However, it’s the subtle differences. Instead of the violent act occurring behind a church, it happened behind an alleyway or a construction site.
“A lot of the cases have repeating factors and it gets a little hard to remember exactly which woman lost her life in which horrible fashion.”
Their journey has taught them many lessons. One of compassion and to continue in the face of opposition.
“It’s not easy to talk about these hard topics,” E Naad Maa Get said. “There’s a lot of emotion attached to these cases, whether it’s the emotion of the family or the community.”
They have come across instances where communities said they don’t have a right to speak of what happened in their own community and they get defensive. “It’s understandable, but those hard conversations need to be had because at times it’s not always some invisible boogeyman that abducts these women or murders these women — it’s members of our own community.”
He talked about historical trauma that Indigenous people have faced which lead to missing and murdered women, such a lateral violence, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. “By having these hard conversations and talking about these touchy subjects, that’s the only way we’re all going to be able to start healing.”
They also learned lessons in compassion. When they arrived in Prince Albert, they had an excess of supplies from dropping off two walkers. They decided to take their perishable items, toiletries and feminine products and create care packages to hand out to families and people in need.
E Naad Maa Get took note of the rate of poverty in Prince Albert, too. He mentioned that people escape and gather here, often fleeing violence and can get involved in the wrong crowd due to vulnerabilities and generational trauma. He also noted that with Greyhound and STC stopping operations in the province, it doesn’t help the problem.
“This issue isn’t just an Indigenous issue,” he said. “This issue, it shows a larger problem we have in our society of how disposable women are in general, how the amount of resources and time are typically not shared with the women of colour that go missing — doesn’t matter if you’re native, black, it doesn’t matter.”
For Niibin, this journey has helped her heal. A few years ago she lost a friend who fell 31 storeys from a condo in Toronto. That case remains open.
“When we lose our women like this, we’re losing our keepers of knowledge. We’re losing people we look to for help…,” she said. “They’re our sisters, it hurts. It hurts to know that it’s still happening and it’s still an epidemic.”
Their journey now takes them up highway 3 where they will continue walking, eventually making their way across Northwest Territories to the Yukon, down the British Columbia coast and then back along the southern border to St. John’s, Nfld.
They can only make it to road accessible provinces and territories, so they won’t be able to make it to Nunavut and Labrador. They anticipate the journey will take them another year — by then they will have travelled over 17,000 kilometres.
Of all the lessons they’ve learned, they always remember one that an Elder told them. “We may have a plan for how we want this to go, but Creator’s going to have a different one for us,” Niibin said. “Take things as they come.”