Indigenous U of W student honours memory of slain aunt, others with ribbon chandeliers


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For Alannah Collins, a university project turned into a way to remember and honour her aunt, Tania Marsden, who was killed in 1998, and to prompt discussions about the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

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For Alannah Collins, a university project turned into a way to remember and honour her aunt, Tania Marsden, who was killed in 1998, and to prompt discussions about the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

Collins, now 30, was only six years old when Marsden was killed. The 18-year-old Indigenous woman’s body was found in the Assiniboine River, weighted down with a cement block — one of the many murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada.

Shortly after the killing, Collins’ family fell apart; she became part of the child-welfare system as a permanent ward of the Crown.

Her aunt’s killer has not been found.

The experience caused Collins, an English major at the University of Winnipeg who is part of the Lake St. Martin First Nation, a lot of trauma and pain — something that frequently returns.

“Whenever a girl or woman goes missing or is murdered, I am faced with the trauma that still runs through my family,” she said.

So when Sandy Pool, assistant professor of creative writing at the University, asked students in her class titled Topics in Local, National, & Global Cultures: Social Justice and Writing the City, to do a project that would be good and helpful for people in Winnipeg, Collins decided to focus on a topic close to her heart — MMIWG2S.

Her approach was to create 15 ribbon chandeliers in honour of MMIWG2S, an idea she found online.

The idea wasn’t hers, but inspiration came “from a deep need to honour my auntie and the women, girls and two-spirit people missing and murdered, as well as the families and survivors of MMIWG2S,” Collins said.

She took embroidery hoops, made out of wood, decorating them with 40-centimetre-long red ribbons.

“The embroidery hoop was significant, because I saw it as the circle of life or the medicine wheel,” Collins said, noting that circles are significant in Anishinaabe culture, as is the colour red, which is associated with healing and also with MMIWG2S.

The ribbons also remind her of seeing shawl dancers at powwows when she was younger.

“The shawl has a line of ribbons on the bottom. They are the most mesmerizing part of the regalia, especially when it is in action because the ribbons move and dance with the dancer,” she said.

Collins, who is part-Ojibway and part-Chinese, designed the ribbon chandeliers to be hung from ceilings in homes, offices or classrooms as a way to honour murdered and missing women and girls and to prompt discussions about the plight of MMIWG2S.

At the end of the project her plan was to give them away, in the Indigenous tradition of gift-sharing. But she worried nobody would want one.

“But that was not the case at all,” she said, noting all 15 were quickly snapped up.

The response was “overwhelmingly supportive,” Collins said, expressing the hope it will help people in Winnipeg see the beauty of the missing and murdered women, some of whom have been “disposed of like trash” in landfills.

“I wanted to make something beautiful that represents the beauty and life of these women. That’s a part of them we don’t see as much,” she said.

At the same time, the project was important for her personally. “It was a cathartic thing for me to do, a healing process,” she said.

For Pool, Collins’ project “embodies something specific to Winnipeg. It is political and personal. I am just so proud of Alannah for producing this brave, thoughtful piece.”

Looking ahead, Collins thinks she may make more of the ribbon chandeliers — not for sale, but for people to donate to causes that support Indigenous people.

“I hope I can remind people about missing and murdered women, and promote healing for those affected by it,” she said.

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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