Spirit of the Bluebird: An animated tribute to a murdered elder

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Photo: Xstine Cook

Gloria Black Plume was an elder and the matriarch to a family of six children. She moved her family off Stand Off reserve to Calgary to give them a better life. In 1999 she accepted a ride from two men and shortly after was stomped to death in an alleyway.

Xstine Cook lived in the home behind this alleyway. That proximity bred an immediate connection for her to Gloria, both as a woman and mother; it also fostered a concern for the marginalization of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.

Xstine is a visual artist and the artistic director of the Calgary Animated Objects Society; the idea for an animated tribute to Gloria germinated in her head for 11 years. But she wanted Gloria's family's blessing before she proceeded.

Negative media coverage had made her family reluctant to re-open these wounds.

"The media portrayed her as a prostitute, which was not true," said Kaily Bird, Gloria's oldest daughter. "In my heart and in my soul, I know she did not do that."

Gloria's family endured two trials with unsatisfactory resolutions: the first ended with only one of the two suspects, John Jemel Karaibrahimovic, being found guilty; the second ended with his acquittal on a technicality.

"We wanted my mom to be remembered for who she was -- not for what happened to her," said Bird.

During this time Xstine found a potent collaborator in Jesse Gouchey, a Cree graffiti artist, for her stop-animation film, and they struck up a close friendship.

Last year Kaily felt ready to take the next step. She sat down with Jesse to review the film's storyboards. His choice of a bluebird was prescient or -- as Xstine describes it -- "one of those weird synchronicity moments": Gloria's maiden name was Bird.

"I thought of something a bit feminine," Jesse said. "I could have picked any animal -- the bird was just something that I saw myself liking to paint. It was the first thing that came to me and they said, 'this reminds us of our mother.'"

Xstine recorded the interviews with the family members in her garage, steps from where Gloria was murdered. "Some of them had not been back since the court days of walking through what happened; some of them had never been back -- ever -- but they were brave and they did it," said Xstine.

And so Spirit of the Bluebird was born. It earned a berth in the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

Spirit of the Bluebird tells Gloria's life into six minutes: 1,800 images of a bluebird flash across a technicolour sky while surviving family members share their memories. The bluebird soars across the prairies and arrives at a resplendent tree to nest with her family, giving Gloria's life a closure that was not realized during her lifetime. Her nephew, Jonathan Tall Man, supplied the score of traditional songs.

And the spray-painted mural on the garage wall that Jesse created has become an emblem of hope in a place formerly marred by violence.

The film has also allowed Jesse to unearth his own heritage. "[He] never really knew about his Aboriginal connection," Xstine said. "He told me a lot that he realized his heart was in it."

Spirit of the Bluebird has already been accepted to 26 festivals, but Xstine and Kaily would like it to be used for educational purposes to shed light on the plight of missing and slain Aboriginal women.

"I firmly believe that the planet needs them in a very real way, they were the chiefs of their community," Xstine said. "Many of the tribes and matriarchal system got wiped up by the church and then they got shut down. Those women need to come back and help -- their children first -- but then the rest of us, too."

The film has given Kaily a platform to celebrate her mother's life and to inform the public about the epidemic of missing and murdered women. "We just want people to be aware. We're not forgotten people," she said. "We lived that life and we still live it every day."

On Oct. 4, she attended No More Stolen Sisters, a candlelight vigil for the rights and well being of indigenous women in Lethbridge, Alberta. (Similar events occurred in other Canadian cities on the same date.) Gloria's death was acknowledged during the ceremony.

"My mother was a strong-hearted, independent woman. She worked in communities and provided for her family," Kaily wrote after the event. "My mother had a disease: she was an alcoholic and she made the wrong choice that night. My family and I have had to live with it for the rest of our lives."

"The night [for No Stolen Sisters] turned out to be beautiful. I now know my mom must have been looking down smiling. She is my angel and will forever be missed."

Peripatetic by nature and a poet by design, Cara Waterfall worked for a bank and charity before focusing on writing. She is based in Toronto. Find her at belledejournal.com.

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