SPRINGFIELD — Kunu Bearchum stood before a crowd of walkers and sang the “Ispoomootsisinni,” or women’s warrior song, in the fading glow of the afternoon sun to honor missing and murdered Indigenous people during Wednesday’s Red Dress Ceremony in Heron Park last week.
Advocates, friends, and Indigenous people dressed in red, shared tears, warmth and community during the ceremony. Poetry-readers or song bearers led the small gathering through a powerful moment of advocacy and reflection.
Members of illioo Native Theatre and the University of Oregon’s Indigenous Womxn’s Wellness Group read poetry, under trees adorned with red dresses to symbolize thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous womxn across North America. Crimson red is the official color of the #MMIW campaign.
Co-organizer Marta Clifford explained the symbolism, saying the dresses are there … to show a garment that’s empty, because the women are missing. In many Indigenous cultures, the only color that the spirits can see is red…hoping that they can see the red garments we put out in their honor.”
Illioo co-founder, Lori Tapahanso, said red garments are also visually striking.
“Creating visibility for the erasure of an entire generation of women, young girls, and our brothers that’ve gone missing,” Tapahanso said.
Stacia Henry, a Paiute Indian from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe located in Nixon, Nev., gave a healing song before poems were shared, the presenters and audience moving from one tree to another during the roughly 45-minute presentation. The poems were largely about relatives and friends lost to violence or abduction, though others touched on racial disparities in housing or the importance of ceremony.
Clifford is a Grand Ronde tribal member. She worked with students from the University of Oregon and Lane Community College on the ceremony.
“Our voices have power,” Clifford told attendees. “And we spoke to the people that are missing and murdered, and we know they heard us. So that’s what I want the students to take away, that their voices matter, they made a difference tonight.”
The event hit home for Megan Van Pelt, a UO junior from the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“I know too many aunties and too many cousins, I know too many of my friends who’ve gone through sexual assault, and I guess today’s making space for ourselves,” she said, holding back tears. “And we are here for our lost sisters, our lost cousins.”
May 5 is recognized nationally as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The Indian Resource Law Center says over half of Native womxn have experienced sexual violence. And Native Womens Wilderness says Indigenous womxn are 1.7 times more likely than white American women to experience violence, twice as likely to be raped and suffer a murder rate three times that of white women.
Rachel Cushman, Graduate Teaching Fellow at UO said, “It’s really important that all of us are coming together to have meaningful conversations about it, and not just talking about it in the theoretical sense as something that’s happening far away or it’s an issue of the past.”
Violence against Indigenous womxn has been a scourge for generations. The CDC says half of Indigenous womxn are victims of sexual or physical violence, or stalking.
“The issue of violence against native women and Two Spirit people are happening all around us,” Cushman said. “It’s happening in Oregon, and it’s happening in our urban centers, and on reservations.”
A traveling song closed the evening, as people prayed for the roughly 4,200 missing and murdered Indigenous womxn across North America to return home.