Portraits of Resilience

I traveled across Saskatchewan to photograph Indigenous women whose loved ones have disappeared or died

Fellows 2017

By Sara Hylton

September 27, 2017

Also published by The Walrus

This past April, documentary photographer Sara Hylton traveled across Saskatchewan, where over 50 percent of missing or murdered women and girls are Indigenous—one of the highest proportions in the country. With help from Ntawnis Piapot, a local Cree journalist, Hylton met with community elders, victims’ families, and women willing to share their experiences. Hylton’s photos capture nearly thirty Indigenous people whose loved ones have disappeared or died.

In the months since Hylton launched her project, the families she spoke to have watched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which aims to identify systemic roots of violence against Indigenous people, struggle to recover from its bureaucratic and political missteps over the past year. Several of the inquiry’s high-level staff members, including one of the five commissioners, have resigned, and Indigenous families and advocates across the country are calling for a “hard reset.” The inquiry’s failures add a new dimension to Hylton’s photos, which seek to portray the suffering and the “resilience, sisterhood, and femininity” of communities that are waiting for answers and concrete change.

Marcia Bird, Margaret Bird, Aleisha Charles, and Ariel Charles, all between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, are pictured in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Happy Charles, the girls’ mother, went missing in April, and some of the daughters have since had vivid dreams about where she might be. They’ve been in touch with the authorities, but with little trust in the police’s ability and willingness to help, the sisters and their grandmother have started a search on their own.

Aleisha shows a tattoo dedicated to her mother, whose Cree name is Kokuminahkisis, meaning black widow. According to Regina Poitras, Happy’s mother, her daughter has long been addicted to drugs. She sometimes disappears without warning, but she usually returns home within a week. Months after her most recent disappearance, Happy is still missing.

Tracey George Heese, forty-two, sits on buffalo skin in a teepee in Saskatchewan. Heese’s mother, Winnifred George, was found dead on an Edmonton park bench over twenty years ago. “I think of all the buffalo that were slaughtered [here],” Heese says. “Are Aboriginal women to be sacrificed as the buffalo have? Not enough is being done, the Canadian system is derailing us.”

Diane BigEagle is pictured with her grandchildren, Cassidy and Talon, and their cat, Waffles, in the family’s favourite park in Regina. BigEagle’s daughter, Danita, disappeared over ten years ago, and BigEagle has been caring for Danita’s children ever since. “I want them to be happy,” she says. “When I get depressed, they get depressed. I have to make them think [Danita] is somewhere out there…that she’s coming back.”

Shayleen Goforth, twenty-seven, stands near Wascana Lake, where she used to spend time with her sister, Kelly. In September 2013, Kelly’s body was found in hockey bag, left in a garbage bin in an industrial area of Regina. The killer was a white man, a stranger to Kelly, named Clayton Bo Eichler; in September 2016, he was convicted of killing Kelly and another Indigenous woman named Richele Bear. “I had to forgive him to feel peace within myself,” Goforth says. “I was so sick. I went to my elder and I had a good sweat and a smudge, and I asked God, ‘Help me forgive the man who killed my sister.’”

Wood burns in preparation for a sweat lodge on the outskirts of Regina. Many women facing the loss of a loved one have turned to sweat, ceremony, and traditional teachings.

Michelle Burns, thirty, sits with her ten-year-old niece, Dannataya, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Monica Lee, Dannataya’s mother and Michelle’s twin sister, was murdered in January 2015 by a thirty-eight-year-old white male she had met that night. He received a thirteen-year sentence. “I feel lonesome a lot,” Michelle says. “I have to remember that [Dannataya] is watching me. When I walk, I try to walk with good intentions, so that when she’s older she won’t end up lost. Her mom would want good things for her.”

Mary Tremblay walks among trees in La Ronge, Saskatchewan. In 2005, the body of Mary’s sister, Julie Houghton, was found in a ditch along the highway between Quinton and Raymore. To this day, Tremblay’s family still doesn’t know what happened to Houghton before her death.

The sun rises over Qu’Appelle Valley, seventy-five kilometres northeast of Regina. Here, in 1874, the Cree and Saulteaux peoples signed over 75,000 square miles of land to the Crown under Treaty Four.