Murdered and missing Indian women
Women drape red dresses for redress of violence
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News Today Contributing Editor
RAPID CITY – When Sandy Swallow presented a carefully folded red dress to Mary Black Bonnet one cold day this winter, friends with them learned that the dress would be one of 70 at an exhibit culminating in a February 24 multi-media performance here at the Journey Museum to honor missing and murdered indigenous women.
The installation of red dresses, each with an alleged South Dakota crime victim’s nametag, was mounted in the cottonwoods at the museum February 10, in the two-week kickoff of the “WHY Campaign” aimed at comforting survivors of violence, raising awareness of injustice, and achieving equitable public safety enforcement.
Swallow, Black Bonnet, and the other members of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society
of the Black Hills, who conceived the commemoration, labelled and draped the dresses from the trees so people can see them from Omaha St.
They planned to move the installation inside on February 24, to be part of their finale presentation, consisting of poetry-reading, talks, photographic documentation, music, treats, and unveiling of the original artwork “Why” by Jim Yellowhawk.
Swallow’s dress symbolizes the 1968 murder of her sister, who she said she also will represent with an original verse at the event. An excerpt: “Donna Swallow May your name never be forgotten. Strong Lakota woman. Big sister guiding and protecting me. Advising me on life. Donna Swallow your life was not easy, you didn’t complain. Or show your bruises and pain.”
Black Bonnet, author of the poetry book Here There Be Dragons, said she will read some of the work she wrote especially for the upcoming occasion, which includes a found-word introduction to an artbook for guests to sign.
“It is dedicated to those still trapped and those who’ve passed,” she says. “You are always in our hearts.”
Black Bonnet is particularly sensitized to the campaign issues after surviving her own rape and battery. A part of her went missing in the incident unresolved by law enforcement, she acknowledges. “Doing this project has been very triggering for me,” she told Native Sun News Today.
“I feel so grateful in so many ways that I’m still here and that I didn’t disappear. The whole situation could have been so different.”
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Yet, addressing the issue was not new to Black Bonnet. She had long since been alarmed by the losses of family members on her Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation.
She recalls the unresolved case of 11-year-old Richynda Robideaux, who went missing from a Rosebud family home 22 years ago and was found murdered. “It was horrific to me. I learned about the power of silence. I felt like someone had the answers, but they weren’t giving them.”
She urges family members of every age to be aware of their surroundings, to take responsibility for their own safety and each other’s, but without becoming paranoid. “We have to work out a balance between fear and a healthy environment,” she said.
“What I want people to think about, when they see it as just a women’s or an Indian issue, is that everyone is related to a woman somehow in some way in their lives,” she added.
Crime victims of unpunished violence are all too often children and teens, she noted. Many of the dresses in the installation are for them, including at least one of age three.
Another part of the spectrum are the women who are “strong, spirited, and don’t keep their mouths shut;” they are victimized “because some people don’t like it when you point out the truth, or discrepancies or things that are wrong,” she said.
She cites Anna Mae Aquash, a Miq’mak Red Power activist and 30-year-old mother of two, who spoke truth to power and was disappeared in 1975. Her body with a bullet hole in the back of her head was found on the frozen ground of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Not until three decades later were suspects’ trials concluded.
It was the disappearance of Savanna Greywind that spurred nationwide advocacy and media coverage for such victims, after her Fargo, North Dakota neighbor pleaded guilty to killing her in a fetal abduction two years ago.
Black Bonnet cries when she talks about it. Greywind, whose body was found in a river, “was loved by many people; she had a husband who loved and supported her and was there for her baby.” The baby was reunited to be raised by the father but will not know her mother.
The tragedy is also “a success story” in that “it caused change to happen,” Black Bonnet comments. “It was probably the first funeral that went down the streets of North Dakota that honored an Indian woman,” she said.
For more information on the “WHY Campaign” dedicated to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Children and Two-Spirited of Turtle Island, contact the Red Ribbon Skirt Society’s Lily Mendoza via email@example.com.
Contact Talli Nauman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright permission Native Sun News Today
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