Skye Lamarre
Staff Writer

Earlier this month, two men were running along a highway in Vancouver Island. During their run, they found a small display of several red dresses that had been placed in nearby trees. Without a second thought, they decided to take the dresses down. They used tree branches to do so, throwing the dresses on the ground once they had removed them. After all of the dresses had been removed, the men continued their run.

To some, this may seem like an inconsequential piece of news. To others, it is blasphemous. Red dresses like the ones those men removed have been used as a symbol for missing and murdered Indigenous women, or MMIW.

The REDress Project is one of several movements that were designed to draw attention to the issue of MMIW. The first REDress Project was displayed in 2011. By providing a visual representation of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, the display proved to be a vital part of the fight to raise awareness about MMIW. In a recent article written by Vogue, the artist behind the REDress Project, Jaime Black, said that she “ended up getting 300 dresses donated from all across Canada and beyond within the first year of doing the work. People were really receptive to showing their support for families.”

Since the first REDress Project was displayed, it has become much bigger than one artistic symbol. Over time, it evolved from one display into a movement that grew on a national scale. Today, multiple groups of red dresses can be found in various parts of the U.S. and Canada.

The color red has a significant connection to the MMIW campaign. According to the Native Women’s Wilderness website, “Red is the official color of the #MMIW campaign, but it goes deep and has significant value. In various tribes, red is known to be the only color spirits see. It is hoped that by wearing red, we can call back the missing spirits of our women and children so we can lay them to rest.” The idea of the color red serving as a spiritual connection is both empowering and disheartening. On the one hand, the color makes a bold statement that the missing and murdered Indigenous women have not been forgotten. On the other hand, it is a grim reminder of the large number of Indigenous women who have been murdered or are currently missing. The color represents not only those who have lost loved ones, but those who are still searching.

The only thing that is even more disheartening than the significance of the color red is society’s refusal to acknowledge the #MMIW campaign. When those men took down the dresses, ignorant of their significance, it was an unfortunate example of society overlooking the issue of MMIW. Unlike those men, however, people in power, specifically those who work in the government, have chosen to view Indigenous women and their families as unimportant or “less than.” This has severely impacted the way that the government interacts with various Indigenous communities. It has also impacted the way that the government handles legal cases concerning those communities.

When it comes to reporting and creating missing persons files for Indigenous women, the government has been consistently unreliable. According to the Native Women’s Wilderness website and the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, 5,712 Native American women were missing or murdered in 2016. That year, only a little over 100 women were listed on official missing persons databases. These numbers are absolutely baffling. It is disgraceful that the government has chosen to ignore the MMIW campaign when it should be at the top of their list of priorities. Knowing that this issue exists and continuing to ignore it only allows it to persist. In addition, the government’s lack of action shows that they will continue to prioritize money over human life. How many more Indigenous women will be gone before they realize their mistake?

This indifference towards MMIW, as well as the idea of viewing Indigenous people as “less than,” is the result of colonization. For generations, Indigenous people were viewed as “less than” simply because they did not share a culture similar to that of the European colonizers. This indifference on the part of colonizers not only applied to Indigenous culture, but to Indigenous people as a whole. Over the years, racial stereotypes have impacted how Indigenous people are perceived by non-Indigenous people. They have also played a significant role in the identification of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Due to racial stereotypes, missing Indigenous women are often described as White, Latina, or Asian. In addition, many Indigenous women are labelled as runaways, alcoholics, or prostitutes. This further complicates the identification process for the very small number of Indigenous women that are listed on official missing persons databases, and it is another unfortunate example of the lasting effects of colonization.

While the governments of Canada and the U.S. see these women as a simple statistic, Indigenous people know that the scars from each missing person run deep, hurting families and communities through the generations. Many families are still searching for answers, and many more are grieving. After listening to their stories, it becomes clear that ‘the issue’ of MMIW is not an issue. “Issue” is too small of a word to describe such a horrific injustice. “Massacre” is far more fitting.

Missing and murdered Indigenous women should not continue to be missing or murdered. They should not be singled out and made to feel afraid because of who they are. By dismissing their stories, we are only continuing a long-lasting cycle of colonial abuse. We should be supporting these women and celebrating them, not repeatedly tearing them down and making them feel unwelcome in a country that was theirs to begin with. We need to respect the red dresses and look into online sources to find out how we can help combat MMIW. We need to show these women and their families that their lives and their stories are just as important as our own. The only way we can do that is by taking action. If you want to learn more about how you can be an ally in this movement, go to the website for the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. It is one of many valuable sources in this fight for justice.

Featured Image: Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus

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In collaboration by Quaker Campus staff members.
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