Pamela Jayne Holopainen.
Amanda Sophia Bartlett.
Delores “Lolly” Whitman.
Elizabeth Mary Dorion.
Bea Kwaronihawi Barnes.
Lisa Marie Young. Leah Anderson.
Helen Betty Osborne.
Danita Faith Big Eagle.
Amber Marie Buiboche.
These are a few of the too many indigenous women missing and murdered across North America.
Projects like Walking with Our Sisters commemorate and raise awareness of missing and murdered First Nations women and girls. This project began through social media as an attempt to value to the lives of missing and murdered indigenous women as well as raise awareness for the posthumous ‘violence of silence’. Here, social media has proven a powerful tool for amassing histories and sharing stories, like that of Cree woman Helen Betty Osborne, who had hoped to become a teacher, but was kidnapped and murdered while walking down the street in La Pas, Manitoba.
Title: Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story
Author: David Alexander Robertson
Artist: Scott Henderson
Published: Highwater Press, 2015
Specs: 30 pages, B&W, softcover
Age Group: For grades 9+
In the age of hashtag revolutions, social media can be a powerful tool for sharing histories and directing action. But it is a double-edged sword. At the same time that it is a vehicle for sharing love and honour, digital media also helps to spread hate.
The social media producers and consumers that are portrayed in the opening of David Robertson’s ‘Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story’ (Highwater Press, 2015) are at once dismissive of indigenous existence and curious about realities that are troubling to comprehend. Some commenters express curiosity, sandwiched between others’ comments that victim-blame. They all reveal a similar truth: a lack of awareness of –and appreciation for– the weight of indigenous history in North America. This is a troubling fact that this powerful graphic novella attempts to address.
In February of 2014, a monument was unveiled to remember the over 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Winnipeg, MB. In ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’ this is depicted amid a packed ceremony, as a speaker proclaims, “We have heard this is a crime. That each time one of our sisters is stolen it is only one crime — that there is no epidemic”. Individualizing violences contributes to this erasure of the history of indigenous communities of Canada, and in particular the violences against indigenous women.
‘The Helen Betty Osborne Story’ seeks redress for this erasure by connecting the lines between these many missing and murdered sisters. Much as the movement for black lives in the United States has done to centre the history of anti-blackness in the United States, this piece and the larger #MMIW movement on social media is a critical contribution to breaking this legacy. Like their racist American counterparts, the online instigations, blaming harm done to indigenous communities on their indigeneity, are a predictable expression of endemic racism in Canada, which manifests itself in the destruction of indigenous bodies.
Despite the trolls, who typically make themselves known very quickly, hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MMIW, among other social media channels, are invaluable ways for the unaware to understand that violence against these communities does not occur preternaturally. Similarly, we can do more to end the continuity of violence that has allowed women and girls to disappear from their communities with more than a state-sanctioned shrine.
David Alexander Robertson, a Cree author based in Manitoba, pulls out Osborne’s painful history and honours her in these panels, despite the reality that she disappeared more than 40 years ago. In the way that it shares the power of her life by depicting her story apart from the violences she endured, it also brings the true crime of her murder to light: this woman was incredible, a leader in many respects, and she was disappeared and minimized to a number. It offers a cue on how to both remember and share lives. Osborne’s image isn’t exploited or exoticized in this story, a nod to both the writer and artist that should not and cannot be taken for granted. In just 29 pages, it charges the reader to understand how stereotypical images of indigenous women affect them in life as in death.
Though social media is the primary lens through which we see these women’s stories in the comic, TLHBO prods the reader to wonder the many ways they can interrupt the cycle of silence surrounding missing and murdered indigenous women. If you aren’t able or willing to mobilize to a rally or ceremony, how can you engage the people around you to recognize the violences indigenous women are experiencing?
The story left me wondering what more can be done than spreading awareness — and at what point does the rubber hit the asphalt in a movement? In the case of the movement for Black lives in the U.S., many like the writer for The Kinfolk Kollective have deftly explained how social media in general and videos of murder in particular can desensitize or commodify Black suffering. How can we make space to share stories without exploiting the subjects in the process? And how can we demand a move away from simple, symbolic expressions of state sympathy towards reparations? ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’ is a powerful commemoration of a woman and her sisters, who deserve more in the telling of their histories.
Rheem is a Black Syrian woman born and raised in the woods of Northern Virginia. She is a student, organizer, and lover of comics and visionary-science fiction.
She writes and works so that she can help to create the new worlds her ancestors made possible for her to imagine.