Tracie Léost is a self-described ordinary kid from Manitoba, Canada, who decided she couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous grow every day. After taking an Indigenous studies course in high school, she marshaled her passion to raise over $6,000 for the Families First Foundation by running 115 kilometers in four days. She mapped her route along significant landmarks and memorials of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tracie’s run caught the attention of the L.A.–based photographer and director Rachael Pony Cassells and became the subject of Rachael’s music video for Cass McCombs’s song “Run Sister Run.”
Rachael created a short documentary for Rookie featuring Tracie Léost and the indigenous activist Nikki Fraser speaking about their work. You can watch it right here:
Last month, I talked to Rachael, and then Tracie, about making videos, running marathons, and applying what you do best to activism.
MADELINE KEYES-LEVINE: Hi, Rachael! Can you tell me about the video you made for Rookie?
RACHAEL PONY CASSELLS: There are several women I know of who are working in their own way around the same issue [of Indigenous women’s rights], and Tracie [Léost] is one of them. [The video is] looking at how each of them have taken their personality, their skill set, and what they do best, and have applied that to awareness and activism around missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Tracie is an athlete. She used her feet and then her voice. Nikki Fraser is the other woman. When she was very small, she was living with her aunt and she disappeared. Later, when she was about 18 years old, her cousin disappeared as well, so she has a really immediate connection. She is 25, and she is a single mom with two kids. She’s a really force in terms of young women activists on this issue. She has traveled all over basically just telling her story and using her voice. There’s an association called the NWAC, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and they’re an organization that was established in the ’70s. They were the ones that brought the crisis to any kind of public attention. She’s their youth representative, and she’s also representing Canada on the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. She’s gone to the UN, she’s been all over the world, she’s super young and amazing.
How did you personally get involved with this issue?
I’m from Australia and half of my family out there are really amazing Indigenous activists—not my blood family, they kind of adopted me into the fold early on. My mentor is a lady named Doctor Gracelyn Smallwood, and she’s a really prominent health and human rights Indigenous activist. She took me with her to a conference in Hawaii in 2010, an Indigenous healing conference with people from Canada, New Zealand, Hawai—all these different Indigenous representatives from around the world. I had done a project in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with mothers of disappeared women there. So, Dr. Gracelyn Smallwood was talking to some Canadian elders and she called me over and said, “You’ve got to hear these stories.” That was the first time I’d ever heard about such a massive crisis of disappearances going on in Canada. It kind of mirrors Juárez, so I had it in the back of my head. The elders were like: “You should come do something in Canada,” but I was living in Australia and life got in the way for a while. But when I got the call from Cass [McCombs] to do the video, I remembered seeing a story on Tracie and was happy that I could finally do something around the issue.
It sounds like the video was fun to shoot, even with such a serious topic. I read that Tracie’s grandpa helped you make a steadicam in the back of a truck using hay bales!
Yeah, he was amazing—two hay bales and a blanket! We filmed from the back of Tracie’s mom’s truck and he was in the passenger seat. We would give him the hand-signal cues, like when to start driving, when to stop, when to slow down.
It is a very serious topic, and there’s a lot of trauma around it for many people. At the same time, it’s also really inspiring that Tracie, as a teenager, decided she needed to do something in her own way and it has had a big impact. Even the organization that she raised money for with her run—originally it was $6,000 dollars that she raised, but they continue to get donations just from people hearing her story. That offered some very practical assistance to families.
Yeah, it’s easy to feel hopeless and like art isn’t important, but projects like this remind me that everyone can help in their own way.
Yeah! When there’s a perception of justice or injustice, in terms of when people have disappeared and how much that impacts the healing of someone who’s suffering a loss, if there’s a sense that their pain has someone bearing witness to their pain and the situation—even if it’s on a large scale of people speaking about it—that in itself can have some healing impact on families suffering.
Is there anything else people should know?
In the current political climate, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel really powerless, but you don’t really have to. You can just improve a small part and it ripples out.
MADELINE KEYES-LEVINE: How did you learn of this issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women?
TRACIE LÉOST: I came into perspective of it when I was in 10th grade. No sorry 11th, yeah, 11th grade! I took an Indigenous studies course and we always had to bring in articles from the news that involved Indigenous people. We had to do a project where we in-depth studied the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Our project was to study the story of one woman; it wasn’t about studying how she died or where she went missing or that kind of thing. It wasn’t about her being a statistic. It was more about her life and representing the fact that these women have a story and they are people. I became a lot more aware and tuned in.
Every second day in Winnipeg there was an article or news story about an Indigenous woman who had gone missing or been murdered, and it was just unsettling to me that no one really cared. I mentioned that to my Indigenous studies teacher constantly and we kept talking about ways to solve it. One day, I came across an interview where our previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that an inquiry into MMIW [missing and murdered Indigenous women] wasn’t important enough on Canada’s radar, it wasn’t a high concern. I took that kind of personally, that he would say [that about] something nationally affecting Indigenous people and the people of this country. That was a big problem to me. I brought it up to my Indigenous studies teacher and came back with, “Why don’t you do something about it? You have all this knowledge and you know what going on, so why don’t you?” The kernel that he planted there pushed me to take the first step. Then I started planning.
Speaking of prime ministers, in contrast to Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau has ordered an inquiry. Do you feel that it’s enough? Do you feel optimistic about this shift?
I feel optimistic about it, considering that Harper did nothing in his [near] decade of being in office, and Trudeau launched the inquiry within his first 30 days in office—that was really important to me.
I still feel that more can be done, but it’s not always on a government level. This kind of issue is something that needs to be addressed with authority and police officers and our justice system. It’s not only about the government, it’s about our community reaching out and fully understanding that this really is an issue that needs to be addressed. Recently, I’ve noticed that individuals have been courageous enough to bring awareness upon themselves and their community, and that’s really beneficial.
In 2015, you went on a 115 kilometer run to raise money for Families First Foundation. What did you do to prepare for the run?
I’ve been running half marathons since I was in grade nine or 10, so this has always been my thing. I just continued to train, ran a half marathon, doing track and field, eating better, and going to the gym. It was important to get the miles in, so every day I was out there running 13 kilometers or so. I just wanted to prepare my body for the distance. But, for me, the distance wasn’t the issue, it was more we have crappy road conditions. The side of the highway was really uneven and the gravel was hard on the legs. So it was more so the effect on my body rather than the distance that was the hard part.
And you ran another a marathon recently?
I ran 30 kilometers with a woman who was walking to increase awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous men and women. Her brother went missing two years ago, and since then she’s noticed that the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous men isn’t addressed the way it is with women. It’s called Walk in Solidarity with Missing Indigenous Men.
What was your favorite part of doing this project?
Connecting with people and building my platform. It’s not about me, but I connect with people and I get to share my story and to bring hope. I really get to connect with people, like through the video and all across the United States and Canada and globally. The more people connect, the more people become aware and that’s important to me. [The project] was a great accomplishment, and I love everything that I do and these are such great opportunities, but I just want to continue to spread the awareness and bring hope to others. That kind of stuff.
What are some ways Rookie readers can get involved if they want to support [work like yours]?
If there’s someone missing in your community, definitely volunteer your time to help out, whether that be walking around areas looking for any sort of evidence or hanging up posters. We had a boy in our community who went missing last year and the community really came together. It was awesome to see that, although it was a guy and not a woman—any missing person is a really big deal—that the community was able to come together and do what they could to help find him. A missing person is still a person and they have a family that cares about and misses them. So if there’s anything like that happening in your community, helping out the families will be extremely appreciated. Or, if you can, donate to local organizations that help the families affected. Or honestly if you have the opportunity to mentor a child or youth, that’s an incredible opportunity—putting them on a positive path. Little things like that are the best ways to help.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
A lot of people who don’t know me look at me as bigger than I am, like I’m more than I am or that I’m not ordinary. It’s really important for people who don’t think they can make something themselves to know that two years ago I was sitting in a classroom—I still am sitting in classrooms developing my education!—but I was just an ordinary kid sitting in class who had an idea, who wanted to make a change. There’s nothing different between me and any other student. If they want to make a change, it’s all about just getting out there and doing it. I mean, I’ve been in the audience at WE Day since I was in eighth grade, and at the beginning of this month I got to speak at WE Day in front of 16,000 young people. If I can go from audience member to WE Day speaker anyone can. If I can go from ordinary kid to changing the world then anyone can. That’s what I want people to know. ♦