Forty red dresses hang outside of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, a short distance from the U.S. Capitol.
They’re strategically placed near trees and waterfalls alongside the Riverwalk located in the museum’s Native landscape.
They’re present 24 hours a day, in all weather, to draw attention to the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women who experience violence at a much higher rate than non-indigenous women.
On this day, they snap furiously in a wicked wind, commanding attention.
The powerful installation is the creative brainchild of visual artist Jaime Black, whose goal is to raise awareness about the high rate of violence against native women.
“What I do is I put up empty red dresses in public spaces so that people can connect to the absence of these women, but also to the power and presence of the women through the red dress,” she says.
The color red
Her choice of the color red was deliberate.
“It’s our sacred life blood, it’s where vitality comes from, and our energy, and our power as human beings, but it’s also an allusion to the violence and the loss of that sacred life blood through violence,” she says.
On this freezing day outside the museum, Black honors the women the dresses represent — with a special performance.
As a Native American elder beats on a drum, the artist, barefoot and all in black except for a red silk scarf around her neck, kneels and rubs clay on the ground near the entrance to the museum. It’s been raining hard all morning. But it stops as Black starts her performance.
Spectators gather round as she clutches her pot of clay and walks slowly toward the dresses. She winds her way around the ledge of a curved pool and wades into the cool water, smearing some of the dresses with the mudlike substance.
“I really wanted to use my talents and my gifts to further the voices of a lot of people who are silenced,” she says, “and indigenous women are really facing this epidemic of silence.”
While Black’s work has focused mostly on Canadian women so far, she’s brought her project to the U.S. for the first time, to address an issue that spans the entire Western hemisphere.
She calls her installation “The REDress Project,” or “The re-dress project.”
“Redress is a word that means to put right a wrong, and indigenous women have been facing injustice in North America for hundreds of years,” she says. “Ever since settlers came to North America, there’s been a violent relationship between settlers and indigenous people and I feel like that violent relationship carries on still today.”
She calls that systemic discrimination, The Colonial Project.
“The Colonial Project is basically interested in erasing certain voices in favor of a certain system,” she explains. “So the legal frameworks, the political frameworks, these things were built by non-indigenous people to silence indigenous people, and so all of these systems have created a space where indigenous women are erased.”
But more and more Native women are refusing to be silenced and are becoming proactive, leading movements, participating in protests and petitioning their governments for more recognition.
“I think in these ways and these movements, like Standing Rock and Idle No More movement, we see the strength of indigenous women to really maintain culture in the face of such colonial violence,” Black says.
Hope for change
Black — and other supporters, including Machel Monenerkit, deputy director of the museum — are also encouraged by the presence of two Native American women in Congress now; Debra Anne Haaland, serving as the U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 1st congressional district, and Sharice Lynnette Davids, serving as the U.S. Representative for Kansas’s 3rd congressional district.
“I think the 2019 Congress for women was exceptional in the numbers that we now have in Congress, but for Native people having two indigenous women represent Kansas and New Mexico is obviously something we’ve not seen before, and hopefully we’ll be able to bring attention to Native issues,” Monenerkit says.
In the meantime, Black hopes the red dresses, all of which are donated, will have an impact on all who get to see them.
“What I think that the artwork and creativity can really do is really hit people in the heart, “she says. “People who walk by those dresses … they can’t unsee that. That’s going to sit in their memory for a very long time, and I think it has a really emotional impact on people even before they know what the dresses are even there for.”