By Theresa Vargas – March 16, 2019
One resembles a prom dress, embellished with lace and flowers.
Another has a collar and A-line flow that makes it perfect for brunch or a casual business meeting.
Another features an open back and looks as if it could have been hung up after a date.
It’s easy to picture the women who might slip on those red dresses and spin in front of a mirror.
Maybe that’s why, fluttering outside in the wind, hanging empty, they feel so haunting.
The dresses are not part of some fashion show. They are pieces of an art installation by artist Jaime Black that sits outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in D.C., placed there for Women’s History Month.
We tend to spend this month celebrating powerful women and their accomplishments — and I love that we do that — but those swaying red dresses on the Mall call for us to do more this time. They call for us to look at a group of women who have been historically neglected.
They call for us to finally start paying attention to indigenous women and listen to what they’ve long been trying to tell us: Too many of them have disappeared.
The red dresses represent those women who have been killed or are missing.
Thousands of indigenous women have been lost through death or disappearance across the country in recent years, but you probably haven’t heard of many or any of them. Try to think of their names. It’s not a simple exercise. None come as easily as Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson or more recently, Mollie Tibbetts.
“The sense is they are disposable, they don’t matter,” Sarah Deer, a University of Kansas professor and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, told me when I called her recently to talk about the women.
Deer has worked for more than two decades on the issue of violence against Native women and on Thursday, she was one of four women to appear before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. The women were witnesses in an oversight hearing titled “Unmasking the Hidden Crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW): Exploring Solutions to End the Cycle of Violence.”
I’m guessing you probably didn’t hear about that, either.
The truth is that we don’t pay enough attention in this country to the issues Native Americans face. The media, of course, bears part of that blame. We choose what to cover. But people also choose whether to look at that coverage.
I first realized how little I knew about the deep-rooted problems facing Native Americans when photographer Michael Williamson and I stepped onto a reservation in South Dakota in 2009. We were traveling across the country to document how Americans were faring during the recession, and while we had encountered many desperate situations — including a former city commissioner using a free health clinic, a young couple struggling to afford a $186 engagement ring on layaway and an unemployed engineer whose family ended up in a Virginia homeless shelter — what we saw on that reservation left us shaken for days.
We sat with a woman in her backyard, hearing about hardships that had taken root long before the recession began and would continue to exist long after it ended. At one point, her son offered to take us to a place that would help us understand the issues. It was a cemetery filled with graves of people whose headstones showed that many had died before reaching 40.
“Not too many people die of old age here,” he told us.
That image of that young man standing there in front of a fresh grave, listing the gone-too-soon, is not one I will soon forget. Those graves were my first thought when I saw those red dresses. They are also why I made a point to watch Thursday’s hearing. I wanted to better understand why these women were disappearing before they had a chance to celebrate old age.
At the hearing, Chair Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) called the issue “a deeply troubling, disturbing situation affecting Indian Country nationwide” and said “we must take action.”
He laid out some sobering statistics while acknowledging that the numbers are probably much larger than what has been documented. There is no formal national database that tracks these women and there have been calls to change that.
What is known is that American Indian and Alaskan Native women on tribal lands experience murder rates 10 times the national average. One report also found 5,712 cases of murdered or missing indigenous women were reported in 2016 alone — although only 116 of those were logged into a Department of Justice database.
The hearing wasn’t long enough to address all the reasons this group is more vulnerable than other women, but it touched on many.
The witnesses described situations in which investigations were delayed because of jurisdictional uncertainties between tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies. They spoke about how family members were dismissed if the missing women had struggled with addictions or other personal issues. They talked about how sex traffickers see Native American women as more marketable because they can advertise them online under multiple ethnicities.
The hearing also did this. It put names to the issue. Among the lost who were mentioned:
Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year-old Navajo girl who was kidnapped and killed in New Mexico in 2016. An Amber Alert didn’t go out until eight hours after she was reported missing.
Savanna Lafontaine-Greywind who was eight months pregnant in 2017 when she was killed by a neighbor who removed her baby. The 22-year-old’s body was later found by a kayaker in a North Dakota river.
Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, a 20-year-old college student who disappeared from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana in 2017. It took nine months for the FBI to join the investigation. In December 2018, human remains were found and sent to Quantico for identification.
“I’m hopeful new attention on a very old problem will finally begin to stem the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women,” Deer said at the hearing. “As a nation, I believe we are better than this.”
She had prepared a seven-page statement, but she knew she wouldn’t have time to say everything on it, so she chose her points carefully. She also made a quiet statement in another way.
She wore a red dress.