WINNIPEG - Some of the beadwork is simple: flowers or a bear's paw, the words "love" and "hope" scrawled by a child's hand.
Some is more intricate: a picture of an aboriginal woman, yellow embroidered police tape scrolling down the bottom, or half a woman's face with a label saying, "Hello My Name Is: Who Cares."
They are just some of the 1,726 pairs of moccasin tops that make up "Walking With Our Sisters," a travelling art exhibit to pay tribute to hundreds of aboriginal women who have been reported missing or murdered over the last 20 years.
"They are just the tops so they are intentionally not sewn into the moccasins to reflect the unfinished lives of the women, and the loss of potential, and the loss of the next generations that they would be a part of," said Metis artist Christi Belcourt, who put together the exhibit.
Belcourt came up with the idea after repeatedly seeing posters of missing girls and women made her feel helpless. She put a request out for donations of moccasin tops, or vamps, on social media and was amazed by the response.
"It turned out a great number of people feel exactly the same way I do," she said Friday as the exhibit opened in Winnipeg at the start of a seven-year tour of North America. "I was getting 100 packages a day from the post office and it was very overwhelming."
The designs and messages on the tombstone-shaped vamps range from floral patterns and animals to heart-wrenching epitaphs. One vamp depicts a beaded Ottawa police badge. Another simply says, "Mother, Sister, Friend, Daughter."
Still another shows an empty place setting with the words, "Clearing the table, her mom would hold the empty plate to her lips. A silent prayer for her daughter's return."
The definitive number isn't known, but the Native Women's Association of Canada estimated in 2010 that 582 aboriginal women had been reported missing or murdered across Canada. More recent research puts that total at 824.
Although many have called for a national inquiry, the federal government has rejected the idea.
The exhibit's focus is on honouring those who have been lost, Belcourt said. Families who have lost a sister, mother, grandmother or aunt need more support, she said.
"When a girl goes missing, the first reaction from the police services should not be to tell the families that she probably ran away," Belcourt said. "We need to get away from thinking that the women who have gone missing or who have been murdered fit a certain category, because they defy all categories.
"We need to just get in touch with our own humanity, to understand that if you are a parent and you lose a child, there is no greater pain."
Sherry Farrell Racette helped curate the exhibit and contributed two vamps herself.
One was inspired by an outdoor meeting she attended with a Winnipeg family desperately searching for Tanya Nepinak, who was herself a mother. She disappeared in September 2011 and, although her remains have never been found, police believe she was killed. As Nepinak's family talked about their struggle to find her body, an orange butterfly began flying around, Farrell Racette said.
"I just really felt somehow that was her," said Farrell Racette, a professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba.
She made a pair of vamps embroidered with two orange butterflies to remember Nepinak.
"That feeling of helplessness, that feeling of powerlessness, that feeling that you can't do anything — this gave us something to do," she said. "We continue to press forward and we have a great deal of hope."
Erin Konsmo, youth co-ordinator for the exhibit, said people continue to contribute moccasin tops as the exhibit travels — a sign the issue continues to resonate with aboriginal communities across the country.
"We are still losing our sisters from our communities. We're losing mothers, aunties, grandmothers, babies as well," Konsmo said. "This isn't just a memorial for an issue that has stopped. It's one that continues.
"There is still work for us to do."
The exhibit is scheduled to make stops in Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan this year before going to the United States and Ottawa.