The Mills College Indigenous Women’s Alliance (IWA) is calling for donations of red dresses for an installation scheduled for early March all around campus.
The call by IWA for red dress donations is inspired by the REDress Project started by Winnipeg based artist Jaime Black to raise awareness of the disproportionately high numbers of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada.
“The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is a really, really serious issue that I don’t think gets enough light and I think it’s just because of the marginalization of folks of color and especially Indigenous and Black voices,” IWA publicity chair Mel Miguel said. “To realize that these are lives at stake, being aware of that is the most important thing.”
In the U.S. alone, American Indian and Alaskan Native women are murdered at a higher amount than the national average, in some counties over 10 times the rate, according to a 2008 study submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice called “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and the Criminal Justice Response: What is Known.”
Black started the REDress Project in 2010, according to an article by the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society. In the original installation, red dresses were attached to the gallery ceiling, floating above the floor, each one symbolizing an indigenous woman who went missing or was found killed.
“[The REDress Project] seeks to collect 600 red dresses by community donation that will later be installed in public spaces throughout Winnipeg and across Canada as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us,” Black wrote on The REDress Project website. “Through the installation I hope 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.”
In the Mills iteration, IWA publicity chair Mel Miguel said the dresses would be suspended in various places around campus with the addition of cards providing information about individual women and girls who became part of this terrible phenomenon. This pattern of missing and murdered Indigenous women is also known as MMIW in speech and writing, and has become known on social media as #MMIW. The dresses will be returned after the installation is over.
While Black is based out of Canada, where the rates of Indigenous women disappearing or being found murdered are abnormally high in comparison to other communities, the same is true of Native and Indigenous women in the United States. Native women and girls (and 2Spirit people who Miguel wanted to differentiate from being lumped in with “women and girls” but who also experience violence in this way) go missing and are found murdered across the continental U.S. into Canada, spanning many miles and areas most people wouldn’t think of.
“The Red Dress Project heavily engages in dialogue across borders, and unites Indigenous peoples, specifically in the United States and Canada, together in this issue,” IWA president Viola LeBeau said over email. “While MMIW focuses predominantly on the sexual assault, murder and violence found in our own communities by the hands of non-Indigenous men, there is also evidence of human sex trafficking of Indigenous women, children, and babies going from Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada to Duluth, Minnesota in the United States.”
Miguel also locates the Bay Area as being an area where many Native women experience violence of this kind.
“The REDress Project is Canadian in nature, but not only First Nation folks in Canada are going missing, but the Bay Area is a hotspot for Indigenous women to go missing, especially San Francisco,” Miguel said.
Bringing this issue straight to Mills is intended to send a message to other students and people on campus, LeBeau said.
“I hope that the Mills community will come to an understanding of the very real issues facing Indigenous women and people today, but also witness the organizing that the Indigenous community is doing to raise awareness. Far too often I hear, “Wow, I didn’t even know that was (still) happening,” and my response to that is open your eyes,” LeBeau said. “Just knowing and/or saying that Mills is on Ohlone land is not enough, if you don’t know what is happening to the people whose land you’re on, you need to get educated about it.”
Efforts to gather data and provide information about the numbers of people and women going missing or are murdered have been present, but there is still much ground to cover. As a doctoral student, Annita Lucchesi compiled a database that has since moved to the Sovereign Bodies Institute website to centralize and document the incidents, because the U.S. Federal government does not provide anything similar. According to NPR, Lucchesi has been filing public record requests with different law enforcement agencies to access the cases, and has collected over 2,000 cases spanning North America in the last 20 years but is still surprised by how much data is missing.
“It’s important for us to realize how real this is; I think people sometimes forget that Native people still exist. And not only are they living on reservations, but they’re also living in cities. Urban Natives are a bigger statistic of people who are going to be affected by this,” Miguel said. “Having the REDress Project helps people think about indigeneity and the Bay Area.”
For LeBeau, the dresses symbolize deep systems of violence and oppression.
“The REDress Project is a powerful installation, that brings me as much joy to witness and organize, as it does sadness and anger,” LeBeau said. “To me, it means there is an issue of modern-colonization being unaddressed by not only the United States government and its general population, but across the globe. It’s not hard to find stories of MMIW, whether you’re looking into the Bay Area, California, the U.S., Canada or outside North America, the problem is rampant within all Indigenous communities.”
In addition to the REDress branch installation here, IWA is also planning a related event with Native activist Morning Star Gali on March 11 at 6 p.m., in the Mills Hall Living Room.
Gali has worked in the Bay Area around the impact of the criminal justice system on Native communities, and has been a part of the International Indian Treaty Council out of the Bay Area for years. According to Miguel, Gali will be speaking on the epidemic of this specific violence against Native and Indigenous women.
“She was at the Indigenous People March in SF and in DC, and is knowledgeable especially around Bay Area issues regarding MMIW,” Miguel said. “IWA really hopes to respect and honor our stolen sisters through the REDress Project and having Morning Star talk.”
If you are interested in donating, please contact Miguel at firstname.lastname@example.org or LeBeau at email@example.com. IWA aims to gather at least 30 dresses for this project. Although the signs around campus say that March 2 is the deadline for donation, IWA will be accepting donations up to March 8.