While the Associated Press and other news outlets have reported on the invisibility of indigenous crime victims, activists say the lack of accurate and consistent information leads law enforcement and policymakers to believe the problem is less pressing than it really is.
In 2016, 5,712 indigenous women were reported missing, but only 116 of those cases were logged in the Justice Department’s federal missing persons database, the Urban Indian Health Institute said.
Even when law enforcement is notified of a violent crime on Indian land, there is often confusion over who should investigate it. In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act recently allowed Indian tribes to prosecute certain crimes of domestic violence. But it did not offer full protection, nor did it cover indigenous women in Alaska.
In Canada, growing awareness prompted the country to launch an independent commission to study the causes of violence against indigenous women and recommend solutions. A report is expected in April.
At the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., red dresses of all sizes and styles hang as stark reminders of the violence facing indigenous women.
“The REDress Project,” by Métis artist Jaime Black, began in 2010 in Canada, where indigenous women are far more likely to be killed or go missing than other women. Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that 1,200 indigenous women went missing or were slain between 1980 and 2012 in Canada. However, experts say that number is probably much higher because of reporting errors and racial misidentification.
Black, who is descended from Canada’s First Nations people and European settlers, hopes to continue raising the profile of indigenous women through art. She spoke to About US about her inspiration and the conversations she hopes to start.
Q: What inspired you to hang hundreds of red dresses across North America over the course of 10 years?
A: The idea came up when I was at a conference in Germany. First Nations University professor Jo-Ann Episkenew stood up during her presentation and brought up the fact that there are so many missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. Nobody overseas or internationally had researched or heard anything about this. As she said that, I was sitting in the audience listening, and I just thought of red dresses — putting them up everywhere so people are confronted with [what is] happening. There’s a reticence to report the violence. It feeds into the problem in the first place.
I feel like I [had] a responsibility to use my gifts to allow others to have their voice heard and to amplify the things that are happening on the ground in communities across Canada. And it was also a search for my own identity in a way.
Q: What was it like to pair a personal journey with a professional project?
A: The whole process has been extremely organic. Artists have many creative ideas [inspired by] different incidents and conversations. Things with our lives just kind of gel at certain times. I had no idea that this work would grow in the way that it did or take me on the journey in the way that it has. But it did come at a time when my grandfather passed away. I really think it was a call to start walking that path and reconnecting with the community that I had growing up.
Q: For Americans, red dresses have become very iconic in terms of advocacy, such as at American Heart Association events, and in pop culture, with the Hulu show “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Why red dresses?
A: After five years of doing the project, I looked back on a novel, “The Book of Jessica” by Métis author Maria Campbell, that I had read quite a bit when I was younger. It’s about an indigenous woman going to a city and trying to find a place in society. It really just had a huge impact on me. On the book cover, there’s a painting of a red dress. And I didn’t realize until far into doing the project that the cover image is probably what stuck in my head in the process. That was one of the things that I think definitely sparked it.
Q: How are indigenous women in Canada misunderstood today?
A: I think indigenous women have been at the forefront of maintaining culture and value systems that are in direct opposition to the [ones] we live in now: colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism. To me, Canada and the U.S. is predicated on violence against indigenous people and specifically against indigenous women. There’s a fear that, if too much ground is gained by indigenous culture, that it will threaten the current system it’s in.
Q: How do you see indigenous culture threatened today?
A: Right now, in Canada, there’s a big movement toward what the government has termed “reconciliation.” But pipelines are still being built through indigenous land that is sovereign land and not signed over to the crown. People are still being relocated from their territory to make way for large-scale resource extraction projects.
Q: Where have you shown your project? And why did you pick those places?
A: I’ve traveled all across Canada, at least 30 different places if not more. Small towns, bigger cities. I think it’s really important that it be as public as possible [and taken] outside the wall of galleries.
I have generally been invited by university campuses like University of Toronto to show the work. There are still some barriers because not everyone is at a university campus, but it does have the capacity to bring in family and grass-roots organizations to speak about their experiences.
Q: What questions do you hope viewers walk away with?
A: I don’t know if it’s questions I’m interested in, but people actually connecting with what is going on from the heart. It allows space for families to think of their experiences. It also opens the door to be educated about what’s going on if they don’t know. I think that can make a big enough change.
Q: What can Americans learn from how Canadians have responded to violence against indigenous women and how to prevent it?
A: Living in Canada, I’m pretty critical of how things are being handled in regards to true reconciliation. But I do think that Canada is a little farther along in being honest about the fact that violence is actually happening. From what I know in the U.S., the conversation hasn’t gotten to that point yet — of truth-telling about systems that have caused a lot of harm.
Q: Is art the best way to get to truth-telling?
A: I strongly believe in the grass roots — the people, art and different ways of starting the conversation. I don’t see a top-down approach of trying to address issues.
Honesty needs to come from the ground up, because I don’t see it happening politically. Truth-telling and storytelling is [the way].