The Missing & Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) epidemic dates further back than its media portrayals. Other abbreviations, which are often used interchangeably are: MMIW (Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women), MMIWG (Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls), MMIWG2S (Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2-Spirit People). According to Native Women’s Wilderness, Indigenous women are murdered at 10 times the rate of other ethnicities, making it the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women (according to the Centers for Disease Control). This summer, Indigenous artists and activists united to pass MMIR SB22-150, sponsored by Senator Jessie Danielson, Representatives Leslie Herod, Monica Duran, and Joe Salazar, which aimed to specifically address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Colorado.
Denver-based mixed-media artist, writer, and activist Danielle SeeWalker, Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta and citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota (whose work is on display in The Red Road Project through December 18 at the McNichols Civic Center Building in downtown Denver), told Hyperallergic in an email, “Native American/Alaskan Native communities have some of the highest rates of assault, kidnapping, and murder of women and much of this can be tied to stolen land, broken treaties, forced removal of Indigenous peoples and the countless government policies centered around assimilation and cultural genocide.”
Last year’s group exhibition Sing Our Rivers Red at Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center, curated by SeeWalker and Navajo artist JayCee Beyale (co-curators of visual art at the Dairy Arts Center and co-founders of Creative Nations Collective in Boulder), sought to raise consciousness and demand action for Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirt relatives who have been taken, tortured, raped, trafficked, assaulted, and murdered. The exhibit included handmade ribbon skirts by local Denver-based artists, traditional clothing adopted in the late 18th century as traders began to offer Native people wool, cotton, and ribbons to use for clothing. They are meant to honor the many Indigenous relatives within Indian Country who have been murdered or have gone missing with no answers.
“There are numerous beliefs and reasons as to why Native/Indigenous women wear the ribbon skirt but overall, they tie Native American women to the earth, to ceremonies, and to the political unrest of issues including the injustice of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people,” as the exhibition description explains. It also centered over 4,000 half-pairs of earrings, collected from all around Turtle Island and beyond since 2015. The exhibition offered an intense and immersive visualization of the number of MMIR for whom artists like SeeWalker and Beyale are demanding proper attention and justice.
“As an artist, I often think about how I can raise awareness to issues that are personally important to myself or my community. I’ve had several family and friends that have been victims of the MMIR epidemic and there aren’t many Native American people that I know that haven’t been directly affected,” said SeeWalker. “When we realize one of our earrings is lost or goes missing, we tend to still cling to the other one in hopes the missing half will be found or returned. It’s sort of the same concept of when our relatives go missing and we have no answers.”
United with graphic designer Raven Payment (Ojibwe and Kanienkehaka), a US Navy veteran and descendant of four generations of survivors of Indian Boarding Schools, Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA) Rural and Indigenous Program Manager Gina Lopez (Ute Mountain Ute Tribe), and many other grassroots advocates, SeeWalker began talks with Senator Danielson to begin drafting a bill geared toward the MMIR crisis. Lopez explained, “The truth is, we really don’t know the extent of MMIR in Colorado. We need to start taking intentional steps toward understanding the issue(s) and working on collaborative approaches to capture the must-needed data.”
SeeWalker had already worked with Senator Danielson on the Prohibit American Indian Mascots Bill (SB21-116) which passed in 2021, to prohibit the use of such mascots by public schools, including charter, institute charter schools, and public institutions of higher education. “Shortly after that passing, I had curated the MMIR show in Boulder and invited Senator Danielson to attend as I wanted to see if she would entertain even having a discussion about this crisis and specifically the crisis in Colorado. When she heard details of the crisis, she instantly committed to helping myself and other women in the Colorado Native community to draft a bill. A year after those discussions started, we were successful in passing SB22-150 into law, which creates an office dedicated to MMIR issues under the Department of Safety,” said SeeWalker.
Artistic activism isn’t a new concept and more artists today are exploring connections between the two, as in today’s political climate, it seems impossible to separate them. This was not the first time that artists like Raven Payment sought to connect their work with legislation in order to share more about the MMIR crisis.
“My mere existence is political. After all, if the colonizers and founding members of governance in the US had succeeded in their missions, I wouldn’t be here,” said Payment. “To work through the heaviness of the trauma that has permeated every generation of my family and memory, I have found that art, in various mediums, is one of the most powerful conduits of expression. While I like to throw bows with written prose, it is slinging charcoal on a sketch pad that truly allows my mind to process what happened and strategize what needs to come next.”
Art is essential in bridging the gaps created by colonization’s manipulated lens while simultaneously expressing the effects of its destructive path. Payment explained, “Indigenous people are largely creative and artistic because it’s how we’ve preserved culture and heritage in light of every action determined to eradicate us from this world. Art is the storytelling of our adversities and achievements as we advocate for our right to simply exist.”
Gina Lopez hopes that more communities are able to see themselves in response to the MMIR crisis, saying, “We all need to work together in order to address this and I believe that we can get it done. I hope that good training and intentional data gathering will help the next work to be done. There is still much to do even after the MMIR Office is established, we need to review the information and data that comes in, then work together to find responses to those findings.” By passing the bill, “Colorado has said that it will not stand by idly on the issue of MMIR, that we will not be a ‘free space’ for injustice and the erasure of Native American/Indigenous people.”