The following is a piece written by Unsinkable’s Jody Carrow from her interview with Lorelei Williams
I had the privilege to interview Lorelei Williams, one of the most visible and tireless activists for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in Canada, and increasingly around the world. Lorelei took my call from the road on her way to an MMIW rally for Wahbinmigisi “Pennie” Roberston and all MMIR in Duluth, Minnesota.
Wahbinmigisi “Pennie” Robertson went missing on May 24th – she was found murdered on June 1st, 2019 by her family. It was the family who found her, not the police, the family. She was found, her body bound up to a few trees and the police are trying to deem it a suicide. So, I was invited by the family to support them because I brought some attention to it in Vancouver. I found out about [the murder] on June 1st, two days before the release of the final report from the National Inquiry and because there was a huge press conference lined up for June 3rd, which was the release of the report, I was able to speak about this and give some international attention to it.
But now the police are trying to deem it a suicide. She was tied up to a few trees! The way the family described the way she was found does not sound like a suicide to me. So that’s why I’m down here.
In addition to supporting her family, what will your work look like there? Are you giving interviews or speaking at all?
Mostly support and speaking at the rally.
I was hoping to learn more about your dance group, Butterflies in Spirit. Can you talk about what led up to the development of the group and its evolution?
Yeah, my missing Aunty, Belinda Williams, has been missing since 1978 but wasn’t actually technically listed as missing until 2004 and that is because the police never took her case seriously. My family tried so many times to report her missing but were never able to get anywhere with the police and her picture was never really out there. Even when my cousin Tanya went missing and there was this whole Robert Pickton thing happening, my family tried again to report my Aunty Belinda missing but because she wasn’t deemed a sex worker or drug addict, they wouldn’t list her as missing. So her picture was never really out there. And I wanted a way to get her picture out there and for some reason I thought of dance and I thought of putting her picture and my cousin’s picture on a t-shirt to honour them.
I just needed to get people’s attention somehow. And for some reason I thought of dance. And what I didn’t realize at the time was how many people of MMIWG would want to join me and represent their missing and murdered loved ones as well.
So, we became a dance group of family members representing our missing and murdered loved ones and raising awareness of this issue and healing together as well. I didn’t think about the healing aspect of it at the beginning, but that’s exactly what ended up happening when I created this group.
What do you think is so healing about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it through dance?
When we first came together it was just getting to know other family members and being there for each other and raising awareness. In the beginning, I didn’t realize how much of an issue this was in our country until I started this group. You know, our first song was a Beyoncé song – “Run the World (Girls)” – but then we started doing other songs. Our latest song is called “Sisterz” by Enter-Tribal and JB the First Lady and that’s actually a song about MMIWG. We’ve actually been dancing to that piece for 3 or 4 years now – I think it’s actually 4 years.
So, in the beginning it was hip hop songs, however we did send a message at the end of the song. The families in the group who were representing their missing loved ones sat on the ground so you could see the picture on the shirts, and the families with loved ones who had been murdered laid down on the ground and were covered up with a white sheet. It looked like a bunch of dead bodies in the middle of one of Vancouver’s busiest intersections – Georgia and Granville – and this was during the Wally Opal inquiry.
Our main target was the white guys in the court to let them know that this was a huge issue in our country. It was supposed to be a one-time thing but from there we started getting asked to perform at all these different places. We’ve gone across Canada and to the States. We’ve gone as far as Bogotá, Colombia to perform at an International Women’s World Peace event. Right now we’ve been asked to perform in North Dakota, Montana, California, Austria and Australia. So we just did a fundraiser for that [The Red Party] and have a GoFundMe called Butterflies Take Flight… it’s a lot of travelling for us. We’re going Montana to perform on August 27th and 29th, California to perform on October 12th and 14th, Austria in November 22nd-29th, and Australia in August 2020.
The other part I forgot to mention about the “Sisterz” dance piece is that the first song is contemporary which we are dancing as the spirits of MMIWG, the second piece is hip hop to show that we’re still here, we’re still strong as Indigenous women and girls, and the third piece is traditional where we actually dance our own traditional dances. We put on our own regalia quickly for the last piece and you can see all our different regalia from across Canada and you can see all our traditional dances as well.
I had to learn my own traditional dance for that piece. I didn’t know a lot about my culture because it was taken away from my mom in the residential school system. So, I don’t really know my language, I don’t know that much about my culture, so for that piece I actually had to learn my traditional dance. That’s where the healing part comes in for sure. Some of the other butterflies had to learn their own traditional dances as well.
I know that dance has played a big role in your healing and the healing of many others in the group and who watch your perform. And I’m assuming that you wouldn’t continue to advocate if you didn’t have hope, so what else gives you hope? What else do you draw on to be able to keep going?
Oh my gosh, okay. When we dance it is emotionally draining. It’s really hard every time. It’s hard to talk, it’s hard to dance, it’s hard to talk to the media. It’s really draining. I definitely turn to my culture as much as possible, and the other girls have their culture as well. There’s smudging, there’s cedar brushings…I take advantage of those whenever I can. We have Elders in our group who dance with us for the traditional part and they’re a huge support. I always make sure there are Elders involved. Our Elders have so much knowledge.
I have a huge support system, just amazing support. This work is taxing and there have been moments when I have wanted to give up but I can call my supports and cry to them or ask for a comfort food or something like that and they are there.
I also have experience in trauma. I took a course called “Indigenous Focusing Oriented Therapy on Complex Trauma” and that has saved me so much. I’m so grateful I have that not only for me, but all the people around me. I have an emergency counselor, a regular counselor, and I need all of that stuff because this work is so hard. I also know that I need to practice a lot of self-care whether it’s having a salt bath, or getting my nails done – anything – I know how important it is to take care of myself.
What are the signals your body and your spirit give you when it’s getting to be too much?
When I can’t stop crying. Especially when I went to testify at the National Inquiry. That day I just could not stop crying. I couldn’t even roll out of bed. Thankfully my supports that I was talking about earlier actually came and got me and drove me to the inquiry. I knew after that that I would need to do some self-care for sure. Thankfully I had my supports and an Elder with me when I testified as well.
There have been moments where I’ve had to deal with media all day long…from experience I know now that’s when I need a smudge or an Elder or a brushing. Now with the work that I do, I know that I have to do some self-care before, during and after. Especially the cedar brushing. That’s from my culture and in my course I learned that cedar is considered our Ativan [laughing]. I have never taken Ativan actually, but I hear stuff about it. There are rocks and feathers that I can hold onto when I speak as well. That always helps. It’s grounding.
I’ve been given stones and crystals from different people from around the world as well for protection. My people put temeth on their faces for protection and I was told that if I don’t have that I can just put something red on my face – there’s videos out there where I have temeth or red stuff on my face and that’s for protection.
I’ve had the weirdest experiences with people who don’t even know me giving me the exact same crystal for protection saying that I needed it. This happened in Vancouver one time and another time it happened in Bogotá, Colombia. They were the exact same stone and the people who gave them to me had the exact same messages, too!
You can really feel both a real human and spirit net around you, can’t you?
Yes, for sure.
You are Coast Salish, is that right?
I’m Coast Salish from Sts’ailes aka Chehalis on my dad’s side and Interior Salish from Skatin Nations on my mom’s side.
I wanted to ask you, Lorelei, if you have a call to action for people like me whom you don’t have to convince there’s a huge injustice against Indigenous people – women and girls in particular – but who still need or want direction. What do we do? How do we help?
Know our history. I want people to know our history so people understand us.
Whenever I’m out there speaking it’s so obvious the systems are against us. Right from the beginning when they were taking the children away and throwing them into residential schools trying to kill the Indian in the child. What better way to do that than to target women and girls? From residential schools to the police still not taking us seriously to this day! When a woman goes missing or is murdered, they either don’t care to look for the woman or girl and/or they deem [their deaths] suicides.
And then you have the media who are barely talking about Indigenous women and girls and when they do, they label them drug addicts or sex workers or runaways, you name it. There was an article written by Kristin Gilchrist called “Newsworthy” Victims? that compared the attention and media around 3 white women who went missing and 3 Indigenous women. Everything from the pictures to the media coverage – it was white picket fence photos for the white women and mug shots for the Indigenous girls. Every single word was counted and there were millions written about the white women whereas there were only a few thousand for the Indigenous ones.
And then you have the child welfare system as well; they’re taking their children but not helping the women once the children are gone. And often once the children are taken the woman can’t afford to keep her place and she becomes homeless. From there they are supposed to go to all these programs to get their kids back, but [the programs] don’t deal with trauma. So then they have to find people to help with their trauma but when they find them it’s either really expensive or they’re booked up for 2 years. This is what I mean – the systems are against us. Predators know that and this is why they target us.
Like Wahbinmigisi Roberston – the system is going to try to present what happened to her as a suicide. The violence is enabled and perpetuated by our systems.
This is why it’s so important for people to educate themselves about our history and what is going on right now. The genocide that’s happened in the past and right now. People don’t really know what is happening. I’ve been out there calling Canada racist. You can tell if you look in the comments section of any media that I have been involved with or anything that has to do with our people. I’m not afraid to call Canada racist because it is. Especially the people who say what happened to our people was NOT a genocide. Read Tamara Starblanket’s book Suffer the Little Children.
As Canadians we all need to be willing to get uncomfortable and face some hard truths. That racism exists in our country being one of them.
Oh yeah! There is no comfortable way around it. You have to be willing to get uncomfortable in order to learn and realize what has gone on and what is still going on. Education is huge. And we need allies. And we need those allies to spread the word. They’re not going to listen to us. I find myself saying the same things in the media over and over and over again, which I’m fine with, because it takes that much time and that much repetition for people to finally see.
One last question: how did you come up with the name of the dance group?
It was supposed to be temporary [laughing] – when I thought of my missing aunt and my cousin and all the women in general and the struggles. And when someone comes out of a struggle they are like butterflies transforming. Even when they go on to the next world, to the spirit world, I just think they’re transforming and that’s where the name came from. It ended up sticking. I see the MMIWG as butterflies in spirit.
I encourage everyone who reads this to learn more about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, read the MMIWG Final Report and its recommendations, spread Lorelei’s message, and support her activism both as a woman grieving the loss of her beloved family members and as a Butterfly in Spirit.
Thank-you, Lorelei, for sharing with us and for never giving up.