Native Women Honor Those Lost to Violence Through Art

Indigenous women are murdered, kidnapped, and trafficked at alarmingly high rates. In a new exhibit, 18 Native artists address the crisis and celebrate resilience.

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Feb 1 2018, 11:03pm

Artwork by Moira Villiard for Bring Her Home. Courtesy All My Relations Gallery. 

In 1991, a Dakota woman named Delvina Bernard was kidnapped and murdered by her neighbor for no apparent reason.

“She was my grandma’s sister, but in our Indian ways, she was my grandma,” says Minneapolis artist Angela Two Stars, who was nine years old at the time.

For a long time, Two Stars’ family searched for Bernard, but could never find her. Two Stars’ uncle even visited the murderer in prison to beg for the location of the body. “He told the guy: ‘You are going to be in jail for the rest of your life, so it doesn’t matter. Would you tell us where she is?’” Two Stars recalls. All the family wanted was to bring her home.

Two Stars' grandmother is just one of so many missing and murdered Indigenous women (referred to as MMIW) making up an epidemic that has been facing the United States and Canada for decades. According to advocates, crimes against Native women aren’t taken seriously by law enforcement and don’t get the media attention they would if the victims were white. In addition, there’s insufficient data on the crisis, in part because most law enforcement agencies keep track of race and ethnicity for murder victims but not missing people. In 2016, Canada launched a long-awaited national inquiry into the issue, which is ongoing.

The scant statistics that are available indicate a dire problem. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 16 percent of all female homicide victims in Canada between 1980 and 2012 were aboriginal, though aboriginal women make up only 4.3 percent of the population. More than 1200 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing across the country since 1980—although advocates have pointed out that number could be as high as 4000. Meanwhile, Native women in the US are murdered at 10 times the national average and raped at 2.5 times the average.

In response to the epidemic, Two Stars—who is Dakota herself—is curating an exhibition entitled Bring Her Home. The show opens on February 2nd at All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis and will feature art by 18 Native women, including several with personal connections to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as sexual exploitation. Two Stars' intention is both to call attention to the problem and honor the painful story of her grandmother.

“It was a very difficult decision to make because it’s something that is so personal,” says Two Stars, “but I felt that I needed to provide that vulnerability of myself.” By opening up with her own story, she hopes to create a safe space for other Native women to share their experiences.

"Prayers Up, Tobacco Down" by Hillary Kempenich. Courtesy All My Relations Gallery.

One of those women is St. Paul mosaic artist Lori Greene, who is of mixed black, Choctaw, and European descent. In 1981, Greene was kidnapped at gunpoint while camping in Northern Minnesota. Her abductor took her to various locations, including a shed and his house, and raped her repeatedly before she was able to escape, she said. In her mosaic piece about the incident, Greene illustrates the moment she knew she was free, when she reached Lake Superior and saw the sun glistening on the water.

“This kind of violence and disappearance of women has gone on for so long,” says Greene. “It’s such an intensely political and atrocious thing, and it’s so complicated and hard to explain.”

When she tries to talk about the issue with her white friends, she says, they don’t seem to understand the underlying racism that fuels the problem. “It’s how unimportant we are, how invisible we are.”

The exhibition opens the same weekend that the Super Bowl will take place in Minneapolis. The gallery’s leadership chose the date because activists have long linked the Super Bowl to an increase in sexual exploitation. “It’s a way for us to say this is not just a Super Bowl issue,” says Patina Park, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC), who partnered with the gallery in putting the show together. “This is something that impacts our community very intensely.”

Native women are disproportionately targeted in sex trafficking (one study in Minneapolis showed that Native women made up 24 percent of prostitution arrests, despite being only 2.2 percent of the population), a problem that is at the forefront of MIWRC’s work. Park notes that while the “murdered” in MMIW tends to get the most attention, the “missing” women are often caught up in sex trafficking. Some end up on ships in Lake Superior, in mining camps in North Dakota, or walking down Minneapolis’s infamous Lake Street, a hotspot for sex work. “A lot of the women working on Lake Street are missing somewhere,” Park says. “They are someone’s daughter, mother, sister. Their family doesn’t know where they are.”

"This River Runs Red" by Shan Goshorn. Courtesy All My Relations Gallery.

According to Park, violence against Native women, including sex trafficking, “is trauma-based and founded on colonization.” It’s built on legacies of poverty, dysfunctional foster care systems, unequal education, and white supremacist patriarchy, she says. “This country exists because of genocide, and that has had an impact on systems.” For example, removing Native children from their families and cultural traditions and putting them in the foster care system—a practice widely implemented in the mid-twentieth century—puts them at risk for becoming trafficking victims.

Meanwhile, because the Native community is so small, its problems are mostly invisible to the general population, according to Park.

The US is far behind Canada in tracking the violence that Native women face, but even Canada has conflicting statistics. Cherokee artist Shan Goshorn addresses that issue in the show with a piece called “This River Runs Red.” To create the work, she printed statistical information about missing and murdered indigenous women on watercolor paper splints and wove them into a basket. On the inside, she printed the names and tribes of 306 murdered and missing women compiled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, whose cases the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had determined solved. “The families and communities said, ‘No, it’s not solved at all,” says Goshorn.

A red gash runs through the black and white exterior of the basket, representing the Red River of the North, which runs from Winnipeg to the Northern part of South Dakota, and in which many bodies of Native women have been recovered.

Anishinabe artist Hillary Kempenich, whose lineage includes Cree, Assiniboine, Dakota, Blackfoot, and French Canadian roots, also uses red in her work. Whether it’s a shawl draped over a female figure, or worn as part of ceremonial dress, the crimson color pierces her paintings with a vivid sense of urgency. According to Kempenich, different tribes assign different meanings to the color red, but for the Anishinabe, it signifies protection.

Kempenich felt emotionally gripped by recent news of LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old Native woman who was murdered late last year. It brought up so many others stories of suffering, she says, in which the cases of murdered or missing women from her community were ignored or dismissed by the police. “We native women are often dehumanized,” Kempenich says.

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Another piece by Kempenich, called “Prayers Up, Tobacco Down,” features five women in jingle dresses and regalia, their arms raised with feather fans, their feet in step, the cones of their dresses in motion. “It’s recognizing our native women who are coming together, uniting together, and praying through our jingle dress dances,” she says.

As a curator, Angela Two Stars was looking for work that, like Kempenich’s, showed the strength of indigenous women. “That’s a message that I wanted for the audience to be able to take away from the show,” Two Stars says. “I want them to be able to first and foremost see how strong we are how resilient we are and how powerful we are.”