An exhibition opening this month focuses on the measurable impact of the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women.
By Scott Barker
If you walked into a boutique and saw a vivid red dress on a hanger, your first thought might be, “How would I look in that?”
Now imagine the same dress blowing in a breeze outside a public building … or suspended in the midst of a leafless forest … or floating in water.
And realize that the dress represents an indigenous woman or girl who is gone.
Vanished without a trace, or …
Found murdered, still as an empty, motionless garment.
That’s the concept behind The REDress Project, an installation created by Canadian indigenous (Métis) artist Jaime Black. Asked about how the exhibition, which will be featured at the Tucson Desert Art Museum beginning this month, came to be, she responds that it resulted from a vision. “It was an image that I got in my head while listening to an indigenous professor speaking at an international conference,” Black explains. “She mentioned the high rate of violence against indigenous women in Canada. Nobody at this conference even knew that was an issue there. As she said that, I imagined hundreds of red dresses in public spaces all across cities so that people can’t forget what’s going on.”
The project first took shape in 2009 in Black’s hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I was working with a group of women at the University of Winnipeg. We put out a call for donations of red dresses, and we put up probably 100 all over campus.”
After that exhibition, others followed, and word spread throughout the indigenous community. In one case, a family drove nine hours to get to Winnipeg to donate a dress that belonged to their daughter who was murdered. There have been some 50 exhibitions so far in Canada and in the United States. Though the installation differs in every community, the basic concept is the same. “It consists of empty red dresses suspended. It’s really powerful because it feels like someone is there, but it’s just the dresses, so it has a huge impact on people,” Black reports.
Although sometimes it has been installed in a gallery, the dresses usually are displayed outdoors. Conveying this message in a very public way is important to Black. “I was travelling in Colombia and watched a group of women give an amazing performance out in the public square to draw attention to missing loved ones,” she says. “It was a really powerful performance. It inspired me to come home and look at what’s going on with our indigenous people here in Canada and beyond, and allowing them a space to have their voices heard through art.”
Since Black also is a performance artist, having musical or theatrical components are a natural fit. “When I was in Chicago recently, I attended a powwow and brought about 60 red dresses with me. Several groups of women had created their own red dresses, and we went into the powwow arena wearing or carrying red dresses. That was really a sort of community performance where we were drawing attention to this issue together. We also traveled outside of the powwow grounds into public spaces, guided by a drum song, walking around Chicago,” Black recalls.
The issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman (MMIW) in North America is one that hasn’t received much attention in the press. But if you look at the statistics alone, a frightening reality becomes clear: in certain areas of North America, Native women and girls are at much greater risk of being sexually assaulted, kidnapped, or murdered than non-Native women. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, some reservations have a murder rate for Native woman that is 10 times the national average; 84 percent of Native women have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes, and in 86 percent of all reported sex crimes against Native women the perpetrators were non- Native. No one knows exactly how many indigenous women and girls in the U.S. and Canada have fallen prey to human traffickers, serial murderers and sexual predators, but estimates run in the thousands.
One person who is very familiar with the MMIW problem, and the efforts to improve the situation, is Rain Bear Stands Last, the executive director of the Global Indigenous Council (GIC). “The Global Indigenous Council is an international advocacy group for indigenous peoples,” he explains. “And not just those who are recognized by a government as an indigenous tribe, because there are many indigenous peoples across the globe whose rights and inherent sovereignty are not recognized by those governments. What GIC attempts, where it can, is to represent the interests of those people.”
The GIC is deeply involved in a number of crucial areas of world concern, including climate change; how borders separate peoples, destroy cultures and restrict trade; and projects (such as pipelines) that endanger the environment and the people who live in areas that they bisect. For MMIW awareness, the Council has launched a billboard campaign that’s now in eight states where the incidence of missing and murdered indigenous women is the highest. Their efforts are getting them noticed by crucial decision makers. “It has received the support of many members of Congress,” Rain observes. “In Arizona, Congressman Raul Grijalva and Congressman Ruben Gallego have both been very supportive, along with Congresswoman Deb Haaland in New Mexico, and all the way to the East Coast where Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio- Cortez has supported the campaign. What’s really kind of remarkable about the people who have backed us is you’ve got, for example in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren who is on one side of the aisle, and then on the other you’ve got Steve Daines from Montana.”
The GIC is going way beyond trying to increase public awareness of the MMIW situation. They are actively pushing for legislation that could help to prevent rapes, human trafficking and murder, as well as make it easier to apprehend the perpetrators. “Everything to do with MMIW relates to three R’s: reduce, return and recover. You reduce the numbers of victims, you return those people that you can, and recover any victims,” Rain notes. “With Senator Jon Tester’s office we have proposed standalone legislation that would be called the Reduce, Return and Recover Act. We also recently proposed the introduction of a Bad Man Act. That is to deal with the influx of gang operatives into Indian Country. In Montana, for example, much of the spike in MMIW cases has coincided with the dramatic increase in methamphetamines onto reservations. That’s fairly consistent with other locations in Indian Country. When they think of meth, people have the notion that it’s two oddballs in the boondocks somewhere in an old trailer cooking it up. It’s actually not that. This methamphetamine is coming from super labs in Mexico, up the West Coast, and then being transported to Indian reservations. There are several well-known gangs who are involved in this. This is how they get a foothold in Indian Country. One of these gang members will show up in the community, establish a relationship with somebody there, and they’ll be influential to a lot of impressionable younger people in that community. The people they target will start to build up drug debts, with no ability to pay them, and they’ll have to pay them in some other manner. That leads us into the aspect of human trafficking of Native women and kids.”
The Bad Man Act would allow tribal courts to act and remove non-Native people where there’s probable cause of their criminal activity. It’s modeled after clauses that already exist in some treaties between Native Nations and the U.S. government. There are other major legislative efforts in play, such as amendments to Savanna’s Act, and anyone interested in learning more should visit the GIC website (Globalindigenouscouncil.com).
Visitors to the REDress Project will have the opportunity to meet Rain Bear Stands Last during a screening of the documentary that he directed, Somebody’s Daughter. “It features several high-profile and some lesser-known MMIW cases from the Rocky Mountain region,” he relates. “The narrator is Julian Black Antelope, one of the bestknown First Nations actors. We have a lot of tribal leaders, several lawmakers, some 2020 presidential candidates all featured in the documentary. We held a private screening for lawmakers and presidential candidates in Washington, D.C., in December. The showing at the Tucson Desert Art Museum will be the first public screening.”
The exhibition will feature an opening ceremony by Tohono O’odham poet and community leader Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, and an artist talk with Jaime Black. Additionally, visitors to the Tucson Desert Art Museum will be able to experience a specially curated exhibit that highlights contemporary Native American woman artists. “Jamie Black has been working with MMIW issues for 10 years, and what she’s noticed is that sometimes it can become very heavy,” comments curator Alyssa Travis. “It can seem like there’s no hope. From Jaime’s perspective, it’s good to acknowledge the resilience of Native women, the rich culture, the heritage. So a good counterbalance is honoring those traditions and that resilience, and the amazing, talented, contemporary Native artists who are doing really well today. We will have an exhibit called Art is the Seed — Contemporary Native American Female Art. We have a half dozen contemporary female artists whose works are very fresh, precise technically, excellent, and all of them are basically taking elements from their traditions and reinterpreting them to tell the story of what it means to be a contemporary Native woman today. For example, we have the photographer Cara Romero, who has done really well and won a lot of awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market. She’s Chemehuevi and living in Santa Fe, and in her work, she’s often depicting people that she’s in close relationship with.”
Travis explains that Romero’s photos reveal connections and anthropological information, and the exhibit will illustrate those throughout. “One of the reasons I think that some people don’t relate to Native American contemporary art is they don’t understand the symbolism behind it. The idea is to give them the background so they can see the connections.”
The interconnectedness of all peoples and the critical importance of each of us addressing the MMIW issue will certainly be at the heart of the REDress Project exhibition at Tucson Desert Art Museum.
“Every single person who organizes or participates in a march, has a social media profile and posts information about this issue, or lobbies for state and federal legislation is doing it to save lives,” sums up Rain Bear Stands Last. “It takes everybody. The late great [activist/poet/musician/actor] John Trudell used to remind people that every single person on this planet is descended from a tribe. They may not know the name of that tribe, or where that tribe originated, but that is a fact.”
Tucson Desert Art Museum
The REDress Project Exhibition
Jan. 10-May 30
7000 E. Tanque Verde
For more information call 202-3888 or visit Tucsondart.org.