When she first came upon the grove of birch trees outside of Behchoko, Jamie Stevenson knew this was where she had to photograph her models clad in red dresses with warrior-like bands across their eyes and black handprints on their skin.
“I feel it brings such a raw emotion, feeling to missing and murdered Indigenous women,” she said of the spot where she photographed models Stacie Smith, Karen Murray and Jaime Dawn Kanagana Kudlak. “I knew having the red dresses bounced off of the white trees, would look really nice in the photos but also bring a lot of emotion to it.”
A member of the Tlicho nation, Stevenson says she created these images to bring awareness to a daily reality few non-Indigenous people face or can even comprehend and to honour the missing and murdered.
“A lot of people have told me that the photo really hits home for them and it gets them really emotional because they’ve also been a part of unfortunate events,” she says of what she’s heard since the images were published on Indigenous Peoples Day.
Local business owner, city councillor and member of the Tlicho Nation Stacie Smith took part in the shoot and publicly shared for the first time how close she came to being one of the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada. As a 20-year-old living in Winnipeg, then the ‘murder capital of Canada’, Smith was walking home along Portage Avenue one night when a group of men in a pick up truck slowed down and began cat calling her.
“These guys jumped out of a vehicle and started walking towards me after harassing me on the street. And I dashed right across Portage,” she recalls. “It’s a really busy street. For me to prefer to run out in the road to get away from these individuals says more than words.”
Smith says when she got to a bus stop across the street, she was lucky that a concert had let out next door and was able to hide among the crowds. “After that, I never roamed the streets after dark and I actually moved away from Winnipeg.”
When Stevenson speaks, her fear is palpable. She fears for her Indigenous friends down South – saying she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to see them again – and for herself as she plans to move south in the fall from Behchoko.
The reality for Indigenous women means having to have your phone out when walking, Stevenson explains, and taking and sharing videos right away with the hopes that someone will see them and help. “It’s really sad because we have to live that way.”
Education and awareness are what Stevenson wants to come from her photos. Smith says this education needs to happen for non-Indigenous people, to comprehend the reality in which Indigenous women live as ‘almost an endangered species.’
“As First Nations women, we are not prey, we are not lesser than. We’re equal to and there’s right and wrong.”
One photo in Stevenson’s series features all three models with their arms wrapped around their waists. With this photo, she wanted the models to hug themselves. “When’s the last time they are going to do that if anything were to happen or occur to them? And for all of the stolen sisters, because when are we ever going to hug them again?”
“We do have missing sisters that we’re never going to see them again,” Smith adds. “We hope we will, but odds are they’re missing and other than family members sometimes they’ve just been forgotten about by the authorities.”
After the publication of the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in June, Stevenson says she wants to see more people using their creativity to bring awareness to the reality of Indigenous women and girls in Canada.