Last year, on March 11, red shirts and dresses filled the Arizona House of Representatives. Activists wore the color in support of HB 2570, a bill introduced by Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, to address an ongoing crisis in Arizona’s Native American communities.
That crisis, and that visual statement in response to it, is also the theme of the REDress Project, a traveling exhibition by Métis artist Jaime Black, whose work opens at the Tucson Desert Art Museum on January 10. Black, who is based in Winnipeg, Canada, began the project in 2009, collecting and displaying dresses to “call in the energy of the women who are lost.”
Honoring the many lost throughout North America, the REDress Project will be on exhibit at the Tucson Desert Art Museum.
The red of those dresses has become a symbol — and the letters MMIW the shorthand — for missing and murdered indigenous women. In Native American communities, domestic abuse, kidnapping, and other forms of violence have put many victims on difficult paths to justice, often leading nowhere.
Gaps in jurisdiction, especially when the offender isn’t a tribal member, have been one barrier. Non-tribal suspects fall under federal jurisdiction, but a shortage of federal marshals has often meant that they can continue offending with impunity. In a report published last year, the Urban Indian Health Institute found that roughly half of perpetrators in MMIW cases were non-Native.
Another barrier is what Rep. Jermaine calls the “disjointed” nature of crime data, a common problem when multiple state, federal, and tribal agencies have inconsistent reporting methods. Without reliable data, elected officials are often reluctant to move forward with legislation, fearing that misdirected resources or unintended consequences could be the outcome.
These barriers have hindered both law enforcement and effective policy responses, and as a result, indigenous women and girls experience disproportionately high rates of violence. The National Institute of Justice estimates that 40% of Native American and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in the last year, compared to 23% of non-Hispanic white women. For violence experienced at any point in their lifetimes, the figure jumps to 84% for Native American and Alaska Native women, compared to 71% for non-Hispanic white women.
For some types of violence, the disparity is even more pronounced. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights estimates that Native American women are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted compared to the national average.
There is no comprehensive, national database to track the number of indigenous women and girls who go missing or are murdered in the U.S., but estimates put the number at more than 5,000 annually. In some tribal communities women face a rate of murder 10 times higher than the national average.
Lack of cooperation between tribal and non-tribal authorities has been a significant factor in these high rates of violence. Restraining orders issued by tribal governments are often not enforced by non-tribal authorities, leaving many women vulnerable to stalking, assault, and human trafficking when they are outside of tribal lands.
With the REDress Project, Black hopes to give people who are missing a loved one a place where they “can feel supported, and maybe have a place to mourn.” To Black, each empty red dress “gives a material presence to something that otherwise is absent.”
In addition to representing the thousands who are missing, Black launched the project to fill a void in public awareness. She was moved to act after attending a conference on indigenous issues, where Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew cited current estimates — at that time 600 — of the number of missing and murdered First Nations women in Canada. As soon as Episkenew stated the number, “you could hear a pin drop.”
As a teen, Black had read Maria Campbell’s novel The Book of Jessica, which followed a Métis woman who leaves home and learns to navigate urban life. The book cover featured a painting of a red dress. That image, and Black’s experience at the conference, became the unexpected foundation of a powerful visual statement. “It was not something I planned. This is something that grew.”
Black has encouraged others to hang red dresses in solidarity, to let her visual statement grow beyond her own work. “I don’t want to be the sole proprietor of anything, especially something that can build conversations.”
The symbol has now been widely used across Canada and the U.S. Last year, when the REDress Project came to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Black told Smithsonian Magazine that she saw it in use on a small island off the coast of British Columbia — a place that is home to only 500 people.
The symbol reached Arizona well ahead of Black’s exhibition. At the Tohono O’odham Rodeo and Fair in 2018, visitors saw red dresses hanging from the perimeter fence around Verna N. Enos Toka Field, a quiet reminder of those absent from the celebrations.
Last year, red dresses could be seen throughout the House of Representatives as HB 2570 passed with a 60-to-0 vote. Months later, they could be seen again at the Arizona Capitol when Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill into law. Rep. Jermaine wore a red dress as well, standing among clapping supporters in a press photo.
The bill established a 21-member committee that includes tribal representatives, victims’ relatives, and members of law enforcement. The group will work to standardize record-keeping and find solutions to the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls in Arizona.
Honoring the many lost throughout North America, the REDress Project will be on exhibit from January 10 through May 31 at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, located at 7000 East Tanque Verde Road. Admission to the exhibit is free, but Eventbrite tickets are required for the opening ceremony on January 11, 1-4 p.m.
The opening ceremony will include comments by Tohono O’odham poet and intellectual Ofelia Zepeda, as well as a lecture by artist Jaime Black and the Southwest premiere of Somebody’s Daughter, a documentary on the MMIW crisis by the Global Indigenous Council.