Community Engagement in Commemoration

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By Krista McCracken

Walking With Our Sisters Installation in Shingwauk Auditorium.  Photo by Melody McKiver.

Walking With Our Sisters Installation in Shingwauk Auditorium. Photo by Melody McKiver.

Museums, galleries, parks and other heritage sites play a significant role in commemoration.  Exhibitions present specific ways of looking at history and attribute significance to particular historical events.  Commemoration at heritage sites might take place in the form of a dedicated memorial site such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or the September 11th Memorial and Museum.  Heritage sites without a mission to memorialize a specific event still engage in commemoration though the celebration of anniversaries, events, and commemorative exhibits.

Commemoration can be a complicated thing.  Creating effective exhibitions and memorials dedicated to events that involve tragedy, marginalized segments of society, and dark moments in our history can be difficult to orchestrate.

From May 5th to May 18th, 2014 the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is helping host Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS) at Algoma University.  WWOS is a commemorative art installation and memorial for the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada and the United States.  The memorial is made up of over 1,763 pairs of moccasin vamps (tops) created and donated by hundreds of people across the world.  Each pair of unfinished moccasins represents a missing or murdered woman.  WWOS is much more than an art exhibit. It is a ceremony, memorial and a chance for visitors to honour the lives of missing and murdered women.

This has been one of the most emotional and challenging projects I’ve have the opportunity to be involved with. Working with people deeply invested in and impacted by the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been eye opening and heart breaking.  Being part of the planning, installation, and ultimately the exhibit itself has caused me to think a lot about respectful commemoration and institutional approaches to memorials.  WWOS is steeped in ceremony, the project is guided by traditional Indigenous Elders, and cultural protocols have been worked into every aspect of the project.

The community based nature of this project has been one of the strengths of the initiative.  Many commemorations and memorials are designed by institutions.  This design process may include community consultation but the design process is rarely community driven or based.  Involving impacted communities in more than token consultation can change the dynamic and tone of a memorial.  It allows for the voices and opinions of those being commemorated and their families to be incorporated in an honest and respectful way.

Working with communities can be challenging.  Timelines become longer as more people become involved, community input needs to be managed and decisions made about how it can be incorporated.  Additionally, defining community and who should be invited to or involved with a memorial is a tricky question and can be fraught with politics and questions of identity.

But working with communities can be rewarding and extremely meaningful.  Community based commemorative projects can also be a form of healing and restorative justice.  Memorials provide a place of mourning, a place for reflection, a place for ceremony, and a place for collective action.  Community based commemorative projects can have a positive impact on a community while teaching powerful lessons of history and place.

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. She is a co-editor at

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