On a steel-gray winter day, the red dresses each hung, flapping in the wind along the plaza surrounding the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian—35 of them—in different shapes, sizes and shades. They serve as stand-ins for the potentially thousands of native women who go missing or are murdered each year. There is no definitive tally due to the tangled nature of jurisprudence in and around Indian Country. Law enforcement and sometimes the general public are indifferent. And resources to more fully document the fates of these women is lacking.
Native women are disproportionately affected by violence. A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice estimated that 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime compared to 71 percent of non-Hispanic white women.
In 2016, 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing, which is likely the tip of the iceberg, since only 116 were officially recorded in the U.S. Department of Justice’s missing persons database, according to a 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board.
The notion that there is so much silence around the deaths and disappearances of so many native women is excruciating to Jaime Black. The Winnipeg, Manitoba-based artist—a member of the Métis Tribe—created the REDress Project as an expression of her grief and her feeling of connectedness to fellow indigenous women.
The dresses are haunting and evocative. One can easily imagine a woman who once inhabited each garment. Black and the museum’s deputy director Machel Monenerkit hope the installation inspires viewers to ask questions, and that it provides a catharsis for those who have experienced violence. “Art transforms, and definitely transcends, and moves our perspectives of how we face a tragedy,” says Monenerkit.
It is the first time Black’s project has been installed in the U.S. and the first time the American Indian Museum has directly addressed the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), says Monenerkit. The REDress Project will be up for the month of March only—to coincide with Women’s History Month—but the museum will also be hosting a symposium on MMIW on March 21, which will feature an all-female panel of experts.
Black is not an artist by training but has made art her entire life. Working with native artists at the Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art gallery in Winnipeg inspired her to further tap into her own creativity. Then, while attending a conference in Germany on indigenous issues in Canada, she heard the now deceased Jo-Ann Episkenew, a native woman who was the director of the Indigenous People’s Health Research Center at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, speak about the hundreds of indigenous women that had gone missing or were murdered in Canada. That hit Black like a bolt of lightning.
She wanted to take immediate action. She talked to professors at the University of Winnipeg’s Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies about having a workshop on MMIW, and also discussed a vision she had of red dresses. They asked her to put up an installation of those dresses, and the University helped collect the clothes from the community. In 2011, the first REDress Project was born on the University of Winnipeg’s campus.
The exhibition has gone on to be shown all over Canada, mostly at universities, where workshops and debates can be held in tandem with the installation, says Black.
The project has become like a child to Black. “It was not something I planned. This is something that grew,” she says. “I feel like it was given to me, as a vision. I saw it. I created it. And it’s grown. It’s like having a child and then it goes into the world. It grew beyond anything I could ever have imagined,” Black says.
The color red was part of Black’s initial vision. To her, it “is the color of lifeblood—it connects all of us and it is sacred but it is also an allusion to what is happening to our women,” she says. But she hopes that everyone can bring their own meaning to the color. “Different cultures all around the world have different spiritual meanings for the color red, and I want people to bring that to the dresses,” says Black.
She has asked fellow Canadians to hang red dresses in solidarity, and they have, Black says, noting that on a recent trip to an island in British Columbia—population 500—she saw a red dress.
At a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the MMIW issue last week, New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland—who took office in January and is one of the first Native American women elected to Congress—wore red. “I’m wearing red today in honor of missing and murdered indigenous women,” said Haaland. She noted that the issue of MMIW had been a priority for her long before she’d taken office. “Indigenous women deserve to be protected just like anyone else in this country,” she said, holding back tears.
Haaland mentioned several pieces of legislation that she and other members were working to pass to address the issue, including Savanna’s Act. That bill was originally introduced in 2017 in memory of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old member of the Spirit Lake Nation who was brutally murdered by a Fargo, North Dakota, neighbor in 2017.
Savanna’s Act would direct the U.S. Department of Justice to come up with new guidelines for the reporting of violent crimes against indigenous people, and mandates that the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior consult with tribes on how to further improve federal missing persons databases and tribal access to them, according to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who introduced the bill in the current Congress.
Haaland said she wants to see more interest on the part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “The FBI got its start solving murders in Indian Country—the Osage murders—and so it seems to me that it is perfectly logical for them to dig in on this issue and find a solution to it,” she said, at the hearing.
Sarah Deer, an attorney and professor of women, gender & sexuality studies at the University of Kansas, says that questions of jurisdiction and a history of indifference or even hostility on the part of law enforcement has made it difficult for tribal and non-Indian legal authorities to coordinate on the issue of MMIW.
In addition, she noted at the hearing, Native Americans have a deeply ingrained mistrust of law enforcement. “The history of law enforcement in Indian Country has not been one of necessarily protection but one of persecution,” she said. “And when you are a native woman and your sisters, and your aunts, and your mother, and your grandmother, and your great grandmother have all been victims of violence, and nobody’s done anything, why would you come forward?”
Native American women also don’t often make the most media-friendly and sympathetic victims, she said, at the hearing. Often, they are struggling with homelessness or addiction, or have had their children taken away by social services. They are more likely to experience sexual, physical or psychological violence from an intimate partner than white women, according to the National Institute of Justice. But that doesn’t make them any less of a victim, said Deer. “Both on and off-reservation, we need to develop and cultivate a culture of compassion and a culture of understanding,” she said at the hearing, noting that kind of sea change could not be easily accomplished with legislation.
Ruben Gallego, chairman of the Indigenous Peoples of the United States subcommittee in the House, said that Congress should have tackled the issue sooner. “I am deeply sorry that we in Congress have not addressed this for so long,” he said at the hearing. “It is a tragedy and it is a sin, and we need to do everything we can to fix this.”
Deer says she’s hopeful that the REDress Project, along with similar installations, will move people more quickly, especially given the power of social media. She says she’s noticed on Facebook art exhibits, pow wows and marches all addressing MMIW. “What’s really compelling to me is everyone has settled on the color of red to recognize and memorialize these lives,” says Deer.
The REDress Project and similar installations “address the hardships that people are facing in dealing with the issue,” but they also create the potential that viewers will become more aware, says Deer.
But she notes that indigenous women have been targeted in America at least since 1492, when Christopher Columbus kidnapped girls and women to take them back to Europe. “It really isn’t hyperbole to say it’s been going on over 500 years,” Deer says.
Black agrees. “Since the onset of colonization, indigenous women have been standing up to protect and defend the lands, water and communities of turtle island,” she says. “It is because of this stand that indigenous women and girls have been the target of colonial violence for centuries.”
But she says, that indigenous women will not be silenced. “Through the REDress Project, the spirits of the missing or murdered women and girls stand with us here today, giving us courage, strength and clarity—leading us forward on the path to REclaim our sovereignty as indigenous women.”
The REDress Project, an outdoor art installation by Métis artist Jaime Black at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. is on view through March 31, 2019 to commemorate Women’s History Month. The symposium “Safety for Our Sisters: Ending Violence Against Native Women,” takes place March 31, 2019, 2 to 5:30 p.m., as part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. Featured speakers include Sara Deer, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Jaime Black Cherrah Giles and Marita Growing Thunder. The event is free at the museum and available via webcast.