National Museum of the American Indian

The REDress Project on the National Mall Draws Attention to Life and Death Situations in Indian Country

Red dresses displayed along the river walk of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., represent the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls. Conceived by Canadian artist Jaime Black (Métis),
Red dresses displayed along the river walk of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., represent the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls. Conceived by Canadian artist Jaime Black (Métis), "The REDress Project" is being shown in the United States for the first time. (Photo by Katherine Fogden [Mohawk], Smithsonian)

Some thirty red dresses hang empty along the river walk in the landscape of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., within view of the National Mall and U.S. Capitol. For the first time in the United States, the museum is displaying The REDress Project, an installation conceived by Canadian artist Jaime Black (Métis) to bring awareness, remembrance, and healing to the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Reports of the abduction and murder of Native women and girls are alarming, yet they have not received much attention outside Indian Country. According to a briefing prepared by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in December, Native American women are ten times more likely to be murdered and four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the national average. Often, the National Indigenous Women Resource Center reports, these disappearances or murders are connected to crimes of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking.

Through The REDress Project, Black seeks to create a dialogue around the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Native women. At the same time, she sees the installation affecting viewers in very personal ways. “People feel haunted by the dresses,” Black said during their display at the University of Toronto. “They feel moved by their presence. The installation becomes a space to educate those who may not know what’s going on, and it opens up a space for people who are experiencing violence to share their own stories. Hopefully, a family that’s missing a loved one can feel supported, and maybe have a place to mourn. It gives a material presence to something that otherwise is absent except for in their own hearts.”

In all parts of Indian Country, this has become an issue of life or death. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women. In 2016, 5,712 Native women and girls were reported missing to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Only 116 of these reports were entered in the Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, a national clearinghouse for law enforcement officers. There is no way to determine the total number of Native women and girls currently missing. Perhaps the most complete database of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States and Canada was created and is coordinated by Annita Lucchesi (Southern Cheyenne), a graduate student whose dissertation uses mapping as a tool to understand the issue. The report “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: A Snapshot of Data from 71 Urban Cities in the United States,” written by Lucchesi and Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) of the Urban Indian Health Institute, describes an ongoing nationwide data crisis in cities as well as around reservations.

Beyond poor awareness and information, a third issue complicates policing and prosecuting crimes against Native Americans in Indian Country: According to the Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978), tribal courts do not hold criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives on tribal lands unless that jurisdiction has been specifically authorized by Congress. Violent felonies committed on tribal lands are prosecuted by the federal government through the FBI. The relatively small number of FBI agents assigned to rural parts of the country creates a severe barrier to justice on reservations.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 took steps to rectify this situation in part by affirming the jurisdiction of tribal courts to prosecute cases of domestic violence committed by non-Indians on tribal lands. In addition, Congress has appropriated funding to conduct research on violence against Native American and Alaska Native women and youths, and support tribal programs to register and treat sex offenders. As a result of the federal government shutdown, the Violence Against Women Act expired on December 21, 2018. It was temporarily reinstated through a short-term spending bill that expired on February 15.

On March 7, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduced a bipartisan proposal to reauthorize the act. In addition, Representative Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo)—one of two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018—has announced plans to introduce legislation to make it easier for tribes to report Indigenous missing persons to a federal database, create guidelines for investigating those cases, provide training for law enforcement agencies working with tribal authorities, and improve communication between victims of crimes and law enforcement. On March 14, the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States will hold an oversight hearing on “unmasking the hidden crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and exploring solutions to end the cycle of violence.”

To continue to focus attention on the issues, Jaime Black will present a performance art piece at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington at noon on March 21. The symposium Safety for Our Sisters: Ending Violence against Native Women follows at the museum that afternoon from 2 to 5:30 p.m. The symposium will explore the causes and consequences of the disproportionately high levels of rape, domestic violence, and attacks at the hands of strangers against Native women, and the social and legal issues involved in these acts of violence. Sari Horwitz, a three-time Pulitzer prize winning reporter for the Washington Post and author of the Post’s award-winning series Justice in Indian Country, moderates the symposium. Symposium speakers include:

Sarah Deer (citizen of the Muscogee [Creek] Nation of Oklahoma), a lawyer and professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas

Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), a partner at Pipestem Law, P.C., where she specializes in federal Indian law and appellate litigation

Cherrah Giles (Muscogee), board chair of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center and an advocate who has worked to protect Native women and children

Marita Growing Thunder (Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux Tribes), a student at the University of Montana who started the Save Our Sisters walk in 2017

Jaime Black (Métis), a multidisciplinary artist based in Winnipeg, Canada, and the creator of The REDress Project, which focuses on the issue of missing or murdered Indigenous women.

The symposium will be webcast live on that day and later archived on line.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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