This post was updated on May 11, 2022, with information regarding Kyra Isaac, who developed the event.
Community members came together May 4, to remember the thousands of Indigenous women who go missing every year without a trace.
Edmonds Lutheran Church created an art installation titled “The Red Dress Project” to honor these women. Around the church’s property, red dresses hang from trees as they blow in the breeze, as if waiting for the women who own them to return.
Along with the dresses are plaques with harrowing facts about the alarming rates at which Indigenous women and girls go missing. Even more alarming, however, is how little the government seems to be doing anything about it.
Speaker Cathy Baylor said she found it refreshing to see so many people finally wanting to educate themselves on such an important issue. According to Baylor, the mistreatment and neglect of Indigenous people has been going on for thousands of years, and she’s hoping to finally see an end to it.
“[We have been] treated with so much disdain and disrespect,” she said. “We are used like tools. Or [we are seen] as such an inconvenience that we need to be hidden away, neglected and ignored.”
However, Baylor said things may finally change now that so many people’s eyes are being opened to the horrors that Indigenous people are still facing today.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” she said, speaking of the continually confiscated lands and withdrawn funding from reservations. “But past responses don’t have to be future responses.”
According to Jennifer Bereskin, another speaker at the event, indigenous women go missing at a rate ten times higher than that of any other ethnicity. However, the Department of Justice only reported 116 cases of missing Indigenous women in 2019. Bereskin said this is in part due to police not taking the reports seriously. A bigger issue on the table is that many missing women’s reports are marked as caucasian rather than Indigenous. Because of this, Bereskin said, the government has refused to help because they say “the data doesn’t support the claims.”
“Me as an Indigenous woman,” Bereskin said,” I don’t count in the data. I don’t count to law enforcement. I don’t count as a human being. But I do.”
At only 2% of the U.S. population, Indigenous women are getting kidnapped and murdered at the highest rate, yet Bereskin said they’re getting the least attention.
“I get it,” she said. “If you kill off all the Indians, there are no more treaties. Then you can take back all the land [you want].”
Bereskin, along with Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer of Seattle Indian Health Board, said people need to be looking toward the future regarding these issues.
“In this society, we take so much and we don’t give back,” Bereskin said. “What are we giving back to our generations going forward? Do we want them to have to worry about these same problems?”
Echo-Hawk said her family has a plan for everything: How her niece will ride the bus, who she will check in with to make sure she gets to her destination safely and what the family will do should one of them go missing.
“I’m tired of having plans,” Echo-Hawk said. “I don’t want my niece to have these plans, either. She shouldn’t be having to advocate just so she isn’t murdered.”
Each speaker begged those in attendance to take action. After having tried to get the government’s attention for so long on their own, they are desperate to gain more voices so they can be seen.
“Please notice my people,” said Pamela Bond. “Please see them. Please say their names. Please use your voice. Use it and make noise.”
In memory of all the women lost, the speakers planted a tree outside Edmonds Lutheran Church as a reminder that while these women are gone, they will never be forgotten.
Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson thanked the speakers for being brave enough to share their stories with people in the community.
“I’m here to stand with you,” Nelson said. “If there’s anything the City of Edmonds can do to make things better, we’ll do it.”
This event was developed by Edmonds Lutheran Church member Kyra Isaac, with help from her family and other church members.
“Being a part of Edmonds Lutheran Church’s Red Dress Project has a major connection to my personal experiences as an indigenous woman,” Isaac said. “I am a big advocate for [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2-Spirit People], as I have seen the missing person fliers, and have known many women who have been victims of violence . . . Personally, I am worried, knowing that my chances of being a victim of domestic violence, or murdered, are much higher than those of any other minority group.”
Isaac said she has been working to raise awareness for those who may not be educated about the situation. She is thankful for the number of people who came out to show support for such a serious matter.
On Thursday, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco recognized National Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day with a virtual event to highlight the Not Invisible Act Commission. The commission is a cross jurisdictional advisory committee composed of law enforcement, tribal leaders, family members of missing and murdered individuals and most importantly — survivors.
“Everyone deserves to feel safe in their community, but a lack of urgency, transparency and coordination have hampered our country’s efforts to combat violence against American Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Haaland. “As we work with the Department of Justice to prioritize the missing and murdered Indigenous people’s crisis, the Not Invisible Act Commission will help address the underlying roots of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis by ensuring the voices of those impacted by violence against Native people are included in our quest to implement solutions.”
The commission will make recommendations to the Departments of the Interior and Justice to improve coordination and establish best practices for state, tribal and federal law enforcement; to bolster resources for survivors and victim’s families; and to combat the epidemic of missing persons, murder and trafficking of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian people.
— Story and photos by Lauren Reichenbach