Ghosts of the missing and murdered speak through the REDress exhibition at NMAI

A month-long exhibition of empty red dresses highlights the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women in Washington D.C.

Ghosts are invisible to most of us. We probably pass many each day without knowing it. “We are here,” they say in silent voices. “Remember us!” But we are too busy to hear them. Our hearts are already full of the people we love. Is there room for more?

The empty red dresses now hanging outside the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. say, “Yes. Your heart has room.”

Without names or faces, without stories to tell, the dresses are devoid of everything but one important fact: the bodies they were meant to adorn are now gone.

This poignant absence makes the REDress Project by Métis artist Jaime Black powerful. The exhibition is meant to bring attention to the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and has toured Canada for nearly 10 years. It will be on display at NMAI outside on the museum’s river walk through the end of March in honor of Women’s History Month.

The birth of the project

From her home in Winnipeg, Canada, Black described how the art installation project began:

“I had the vision to do it quite a few years ago. It was probably 2009 when I first got that image in my mind and I started working from there. I started up here in Winnipeg. What we did is I actually just went and got a few dresses and put them up in a gallery. But then after that, I was working with the University of Winnipeg and they wanted to do a large-scale edition to get all the people at the university thinking and talking about what was going on here and beyond, as far as the safety of Indigenous women and girls.”

The dresses now on display at the museum were donated by members of communities all across Canada. The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women was first raised there due to the alarming number of Native women in Canada who disappear or are found murdered every year. In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a report that identified nearly 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Now numbers are into the several thousands.

But to most, the issue is invisible. It’s rarely talked about outside Native communities. That’s why the display of bright red dresses is so effective. It quietly brings attention to the emptiness felt by loved ones of the missing and murdered.

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It gets people talking

March 1 was cold. The first day of the exhibition the dresses moved in the breeze and a fine mist of rain blew across them. Some dresses had sleeves that waved at anyone who cared to look.

Some of the dresses hung near trees or outside the windows of The Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe. Some were plain, some sleeveless, some elegant. All were empty and that emptiness created a vacuum that drew in the viewer’s concern. Clean dresses don’t normally flutter outside in the cold. Usually, they’re inside, in the warmth, at a party or a family gathering, at some friendly place, covering a young woman and celebrating her form.

The empty dresses outside NMAI raise questions within the viewer’s mind that are hard to ignore. “What’s going on here? Whose dresses are these? Why are they hanging outside?” That’s their power. They get people talking.

“Most of the time,” Black explained, “when I put up the installation I work with different community groups as well as at the university institutions. A lot of them have been up at universities. What happens is we make connections with whatever community that they’re in and involve Indigenous student groups. We often connect with people working in shelters or different community organizations in the area. Not every time, but we often have panels and different talks where we can hear what’s happening in the community on the ground in that place and of course families are always invited and often do attend.”

The cause is systemic

Black says the issue is multifaceted and often involves institutional racism.

“I hear a lot of stories from family members, a lot of experiences they’ve gone through. It’s really heartbreaking. Not only are people losing loved ones, but they’re also faced with institutional racism when they’re looking for support around finding their loved ones. One family actually told me a story, and they let me know it was okay for me to share it. They’d called looking for their daughter and the police actually told them they don’t do family reunions and hung up the phone on them.”

Black believes the problem boils down to two things. First, Indigenous people are basically in an abusive relationship with Canada. This view helps her understand and relate on a more personal level to what’s happening on a societal level. Second, the matriarchal and matrilineal structure of Native society is threatening to the colonizing powers.

“I think taking power away from women was one of the crucial things that needed to happen in order for colonization to proceed. And I feel like that relationship and that way of operating is still occurring today and it hasn’t changed much over the years,” Black explained.

Red is for remembering

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The color red has many meanings. It is the color of life, of blood, and a symbol of the feminine. The violence, both personal and systemic, against Native people is also symbolized by that color. It permeates each dress, grabbing the viewer’s attention and helping them remember the unnecessary violence and loss that continues to this day, not only in Canada but in the U.S. as well.

“It’s systemic and I think that’s exactly the problem. People are often blamed just generally in society and even more so in Indigenous communities. People are blamed for their own problems. It’s actually deep-rooted colonial frameworks that are responsible for a lot of the violence we’re seeing.

“I’m hoping that work using the red dresses is a way for us to support families and start conversations on a grander scale that they’re not probably in a position to generate themselves. You know, to support them, be there for them having these conversations and getting together and thinking of solutions, working together with them as well, just showing them that they’re not alone in this.”

The ghosts of lost loved ones become honored guests at the exhibition of the empty red dresses. They enter the viewer’s heart and finally receive the mourning and healing they deserve. The viewer frees them by feeling their pain. Although the causes of the phenomenon are complex, the solution seems simple: embrace the victims as these dresses once did.

The museum will hold an open house to discuss the exhibition on March 6 at 10 a.m. hosted by museum deputy director Machel Monenerkit.

Black herself will participate in a symposium at the museum on March 21 called “Safety for Our Sisters: Ending Violence Against Native Women.”

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Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.

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