Patience Commanda in her red jingle dress. The red dress, and the hand painted over her face, commemorates missing and murdered Indigenous women. Photo courtesy Patience Commanda

Missing Indigenous women spawn hope

By 
  • June 25, 2021

When Ojibwe jingle dress dancer Patience Commanda decided to use her art form to bring awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), she never imagined she would receive hope in return.

The 15-year-old from the Rama First Nation and Grade 9 student at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia, Ont., filmed a video for a virtual red dress competition to honour the MMIWG. (The final report of the MMIWG national inquiry that looked into the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls was released in 2019).

Her stepmom Lindsay took a photo of Commanda in her jingle dress with a red hand printed over her mouth as a symbol of solidarity with the women.

Jingle dresses are worn by Indigenous women and young girls and are commonly seen on the powwow trails. The dresses have metal cones stitched into rows or elaborate designs that jingle when the dancer moves. The shape and sound of the jingles is said to spread healing, whether dancing for one person or a whole nation. Commanda’s regalia was created by a family friend and was designed with symbolism in respect of the MMIWG.

“The red is for the murdered and the handprint signifies the women and children who have been involved and have been silenced,” said Commanda. “They haven’t been able to share their stories because it’s scary and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them if their stories are told.”

Lindsay reached out to local illustrator, educator and community activist Chief Lady Bird, Nancy King, who Commanda had met at an open house for the artist’s new studio. In an e-mail Lindsay asked if King would be interested in doing a piece inspired by the photo as a gift for Commanda. King responded immediately and said she would be honoured to do so. She started working on it right away.

“We went (to her studio) to look at her work and maybe pick up some stuff and it was so much fun because I got to see all the art that she makes,” said Commanda. “I heard afterwards she was really inspired by me and I was inspired by her and it was really fun and a great experience.”

“She said she had an instant connection with Patience and she said it’s important to uplift and bring power to our youth,” said Lindsay. “She said Patience is definitely one of the powerful youth of the community and she really wanted to bring that (photo) to life for her.”

Commanda, a young activist herself, has been passionate about supporting the MMIWG and, having a grandparent that survived residential schools, has been committed to spreading awareness. She is making and selling orange shirts in honour of those who endured residential schools. Five dollars from every shirt is going to a foundation in Rama that will build a pathway and a commemorative space for survivors to remember the children from Rama that didn’t come home.

King honoured Commanda in a social post sharing the painting.

“I wanted to uplift Patience today and her mission to walk in a good way, educate and give our relations a voice,” wrote King. “I know she’s gonna grow up to do amazing things (she’s already an incredible young leader) and I’m so proud of her.”

The painting was recognized by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Feb. 14, a day to bring remembrance and awareness to Canada’s MMIWG. 

Commanda says a painting done by an artist who inspires her brought a lot of hope to her heart.   

“I think I almost got emotional because of the painting,” said Commanda. “In the picture I am not a happy person because I disagree with what’s happening to the MMIWG and the painting was just done so nicely. It was beautiful. I think the fact that it was done by Chief Ladybird, who is  so important to me and very empowering, just makes me love it even more.”

Brian McKenzie, principal at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School, says the school has worked hard over the past 20 years to develop a strong relationship with the Indigenous community in Rama. He has been impressed by Commanda and all she has been doing in support of spreading awareness.

“She’s a dynamic young woman and she’s really done a lot in celebration of her culture here at the school and in the community,” said McKenzie. 

The school has firm ties to the Mnjikaning Kendaaswin Elementary School where most of its Indigenous students attended. Though most are non-Catholic, the school has embraced their traditions, he says, and worked to create a safe space for their cultural expression.

“We’re making sure that we do as much as we can to learn more about Indigenous culture and put that front and centre in the community,” said McKenzie. “Many of their students also decided that they would like to learn more about Catholic culture and religion. Some find they can if not fit it in, they can at least accommodate it within their own religious beliefs.”

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