Jamie Black’s REDress Project at NMAI DC

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From Smithsonian Magazine Online “These Haunting Red Dresses Memorialize Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women” by Alicia Ault. Photo taken by Katherine Fogden, NMAI.

The REDress Project marks the first time the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) has directly addressed the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). According to a 2018 report published by the Urban Indian Health Institute, 5,712 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing in the US in 2016. Only 116 of these cases were logged into the Department of Justice’s database. The report also states that murder is the third leading cause of death among American Indian/Alaska Native women. Despite the staggering statistics, not much national attention is given to the MMIWG crisis. Artist Jamie Black’s work is dedicated to bringing attention this crisis that spans the United States and Canada.

Jamie Black is a member of the Métis Nation and is based out of Winnipeg-Manitoba, Canada. She describes the REDress Project as “an aesthetic response to the more than 1000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada” and she hopes “to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.” Since 2011, the project has been installed throughout Canada. The REDress Project’s installation at NMAI is its first United States appearance. 35 red dresses of various sizes and silhouettes hang in the trees on the museum’s grounds. The installation will only be up for the month of March, women’s history month. NMAI held a symposium on March 21st entitled, “Safety for our Sisters: Ending Violence Against Native Women” during which Black spoke about her work. You can watch the webcast below (Black is introduced at 1:14:00, but the other presenters are also informative.)  Although REDress Project is only up during March, there is ongoing action to address the MMIWG crisis and make lasting impact beyond Women’s History Month.

Alicia Ault wrote an article for Smithsonian Magazine that discusses the REDress Project as well as legislative action being lead by New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland and Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. Mukowski and Cortez Masto introduced Savanna’s Act in 2017, named after 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, according to Murkowski’s website,

“increases coordination among all levels of law enforcement, increases data collection and information sharing, and empowers tribal governments with the resources they need in cases involving missing and murdered indigenous women and girls wherever they occur,” and “improves tribal access to certain federal crime information databases by mandating that the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior consult with Indian tribes on how to further improve these databases and access to them. It also requires certain federal agencies to solicit recommendations from tribes on enhancing the safety of Native women, as murder rates against indigenous women are ten times the national average.”

The need for Savanna’s Law is supported by the 2018 report from Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI). As addressed in the bill to pass Savanna’s Law, there are systemic problems that perpetuate the MMIWG crisis. The UIHI echoes this when explaining that their report, despite thorough collection practices, includes incomplete and possibly inaccurate data. The UIHI states, “reasons for the lack of quality data include underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and American Indian and Alaska Native communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and a lack of substantive relationships between journalists and American Indian and Alaska Native communities.”

Marabou is glad that the NMAI has taken the step of addressing the MMIWG crisis by showcasing Jamie Black’s REDress Project openly, on museum grounds, so that more people will be exposed to the message. Although the dresses will come down in April, the crisis continues. Marabou is thinking about how NMAI can continue to be an advocate and bring more attention to the MMIWG crisis. This raises greater questions around museum institutions as advocates. How can museums use the space they occupy, physically and metaphorically, to highlight and support positive social change in ways that go beyond gesture and make tangible impact?

Jamie Black’s REDress Project on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Photo by Katherine Fogden, Smithsonian.

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