Lorelei Williams' Butterflies in Spirit moves through colonial trauma
The healing dance
Lorelei Williams was born into a void and she grew into a ghost.
She was just a little kid when family members began to say, “You look just like your auntie Belinda.” Over and over she heard this, a mixture of joy and pain in their eyes. It was a hollow comfort to Belinda’s siblings and parents: she’d vanished in 1977, just 12 years old. The picture on her “missing” poster looks like a school picture and shows a tiny figure with shy smile and eyes glancing down as if too self-conscious to meet the camera head-on. She’s a child who has been missing for almost 40 years and there are still no answers.
The nightmare happened again when Lorelei was just 16 and her cousin, 19-year-old Tanya Holyk, disappeared. Williams had looked up to the bright, beautiful older girl. A few years later, Holyk’s DNA was found on serial killer Robert Pickton’s farm.
The fate of Williams’ aunt and cousin is part of the terribly invisible violence inflicted daily upon indigenous women across Canada. Pickton’s crimes are part of a national tragedy, an internationally recognized crisis, and a recent election issue.
Yet murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW) are blamed for the violence of men and the sickness of their attackers. MMIW are targeted, taken, and preyed upon, all of which are consequences of colonialism, racism, misogyny, residential schools, patriarchy, political inaction anda litany of other factors. There are more than 1,200 MMIW in Canada—research suggests that number is likely much higher—and there’s no sense of urgency on the part of the federal government to stop it. They don’t mourn and they don’t seek justice, but Williams does.
In 2011, she founded Butterflies in Spirit, a dance troupe of friends and family members of murdered and missing indigenous women. They dance with big pictures of their loved ones on t-shirts, raising awareness for MMIW and, hopefully, getting some answers.
But there’s also a side benefit, Lorelei says, something she never anticipated when she came up with the concept of Butterflies in Spirit: an opportunity to heal.
Lorelei spoke with Megaphone on a gorgeous fall day at Crab Park in the Downtown Eastside, sitting in front of the memorial rock commemorating murdered and missing women and girls. We talked about loss, violence, abuse, her mother, Beyonce, Stephen Harper, and the power and beauty of Butterflies in Spirit.
Megaphone (MP): Your aunt Belinda disappeared before you were born. I can’t imagine the toll that took on your family.
Lorelei Williams (LW): “I was born into this [MMIW]. I can’t imagine all the stresses my mom was going through, even pregnant with me. I see the pain. It’s still the same as when it was when I first started realizing what was going on with my family. When my mom or my aunts talked or talk—my mom passed away, that’s why I say talked—about my missing aunt, their voices shake. They want to know where their sister is.”
MP: Can you talk about how Canada got to this point?
LW: “It starts with our history: colonization, residential schools, our women and men were thrown into residential schools as children and that made them vulnerable. We grew up like this, trying to cope with all of that, we’ve just become targets because of our history.
“Back then our government was trying to take the Indian out of us, putting us down as people, as human beings. We’ve been fighting this for so long, just trying to be a human being in this country, and even to this day, we’re still fighting hard with the government. Especially Stephen Harper. Our history was so bad and that was so traumatizing in itself. There’s a lot of trauma in our people.”
MP: You have some answers with your cousin Tanya, but still no answers about Belinda.
LW: “This has happened to my family twice, so I know this all too well. It destroys families. It’s one thing when somebody passes away, you don’t want to celebrate Christmas, birthdays, anything like that. When you have a person who’s gone missing or been murdered, it’s that much more painful. Especially when you don’t know where this person is or especially when they died a horrific death. Thecircle is broken, the family is broken.
“I feel like I am healing. Ever since I started Butterflies in Spirit, I feel like I become stronger and stronger each year. I have become close with other family members of missing and murdered women. Us coming together is healing itself. Us coming together and raising awareness of this issue is making us stronger, We don’t want this to happen to any other families.”
MP: You’ve mentioned before that Beyonce and her “Who Runs the World” inspired Butterflies in Spirit’s beginnings. Were you a dancer?
LW: “No, I don’t even know why [I dance]! (laughs) I really wanted to catch people’s attention and to get my missing aunt’s picture out there. For some reason I thought of dance. Beyonce’s song, ‘Who Runs the World,’ was popular at the time. I would watch the dance over and over. That would get people’s attention! I put my idea out there, I started speaking at events, talking about my vision. “Dancing is healing. I learned that. That wasn’t a part of my plan, but the very first performance that we did, my mom had passed away five days before. I was debating if I even wanted to go on with the performance. My mom passed away April 25, 2012, and we performed April 30.
“My mom was an alcoholic. Her liver was damaged and that’s why she ended up inthe hospital. She escaped the hospital once. She got out. I don’t know how she got out (laughs) but the hospital called me and I was like, Oh my god. My sister lived with her and she went home and she was there, drinking.
“She was a residential school survivor, this was her path, she was sexually abused, physically abused, and she used drinking to numb the pain. This is a part of our history. When my mom escaped the hospital, we were doing sneak peeks, we’d posted a few on YouTube, to invite people to come to our main performance. I told my sister, ‘Show mom the sneak peeks and my sister was able to show her and she said she just cried. All of the girls, at the time, we were wearing my missing aunt’s picture only. I think it was the only t-shirt we could get really fast or something, so when my mom passed away and we were due to perform, I was like, I have to do this for her, too. I know my mom wouldn’t want me to cancel this.
“When my mom passed away, I had anxiety straight for two weeks. I didn’t even know what that was, I never knew what anxiety was. I’d had a brother who passed away a few years before that, but when my mom passed away, it was just this anxiety I’d never felt. Then all of a sudden I had this bad feeling and it was hard, but when we performed, in that 15 minutes of performing, it went away. It was all gone. As soon as we were done, it came right back. So I really believe dancing is healing.”
"Our government was trying to take the Indian out of us, putting us down as people, as human beings. We've been fighting this for so long, just trying to be a human being in this country...there's a lot of trauma in our people."
MP: The government has refused to do a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women. [Editor’s note: this interview took place before the Oct. 19 federal election. Prime Minster Justin Trudeau has committed to a national inquiry on MMIW.]
LW: “He [Stephen Harper] says it’s not high on his radar, him and his government, even though we have international bodies saying this is an issue in Canada. He doesn’t want to look at it because he doesn’t care. I kind of get it. You see it in the news and what you get in the news isn’t the same as what you get from actual family members talking about it. This is what Butterflies in Spirit does, we put feeling behind it. People see what it’s doing to us.
“In the media, Native women are portrayed as ‘bad’ or there’s so many things. They say they’re sex workers, they put themselves there, they’re always drinking, they’re putting themselves at risk, as if we deserve this. So, okay, what if some women drink? Don’t a lot of people drink? Oh, then it’s okay they’re being murdered or going missing. Somebody said, wallets go missing, glasses go missing, women don’t go missing. They’re taken. They’re taken. This is a person. They’re stolen.
“I would like to meet Harper one day and talk to him and ask him why. Ask him why he doesn’t care for our women. Why he doesn’t think this is a problem. These are 1,200 missing and murdered women. They’re human beings. Canada can spend millions of dollars on Canada’s birthday, for fireworks and all that stuff, but they can’t put money into a national inquiry. We need a national inquiry, but we also need action now.”
MP: Were you in court for any of the Pickton trial?
LW: “I wasn’t in court for any of it, I didn’t attend the trial. I was in court for the inquiry. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I’ve never been to the farm, I couldn’t do that. My auntie Dixie, the families they were on the farm. When Pickton was arrested, the families were gathering there. To this day, I couldn’t go. I can’t. It’s just something I can’t bring myself to do. It’s traumatic.
“We’re all coming together, it’s making us stronger. This issue is coming out, it’s being brought out, finally. There’s a lot of attention about this issue, especially with Mrs. Universe [Editor’s note: In August, Ashley Burnam was crowned Mrs. Universe 2015. She was the first Canadian and first aboriginal woman to win the title. Burnam is a member of the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta. The theme of the pageant this year: domestic violence and reflection over children]. She did a fashion show for missing and murdered women up in Kamloops and she was the keynote speaker and we got to perform right after her and I thanked her for bringing this issue out. I had a good talk with her, we have some similarities in growing up, our past with sexual abuse and physical abuse. The more I talk about it, the more I’m healing.”
MP: When people tell me they feel ashamed that something traumatic has happened to them, I understand and it breaks my heart, but I get so mad at the culture that we live in wherein we let people feel that shame instead of putting the blame where it belongs.
LW: “Yes, and that’s something I’ve been recently dealing with. For my job, at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, part of my job is to go in and talk to police cadets in training, and my part is to speak about residential school and the link between murdered and missing women. I talk about my history, my mom being a residential school survivor, how I grew up with sexual abuse and physical abuse, my mom being an alcoholic, I talk about that.“I feel like I’m strong enough to talk about it. But I did an interview with CBC and I came out publicly with it. It just came out, and I didn’t really think anything of it, but when I saw it online and I read it, I was like, ‘Oh my god, what did I just do?’ The shame came back. I felt guilty, I felt gross. Did I do the right thing? And what are people going to think of me now that they know this?
“But then Mrs. Universe came out, Ashley Callingbull, when she won the title, she came out with her sexual abuse. I realized, no, I amok. We do need to talk about this. It’s our history. This is what I had to grow up with as an aboriginal girl. People need to know what happened to us and we need to heal.”