Dakota State University students are working to raise awareness of the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women by hanging red dresses on trees around campus.
Since the beginning of this year, 19 Native American girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have been reported missing in South Dakota, according to the state Office of the Attorney General.
"Nontribal members come in and kidnap indigenous women; nobody every gets caught or put in jail," said Miles Livermont, president of the Native American Student Association (NASA), identifying one of the many contributing factors.
He admits that as a "white-passing male," he can't speak to the experience of Native American women, but he is aware of factors which contribute to this problem. While poverty is a driver that leads some Native women into human trafficking, he believes jurisdictional nightmares play a bigger role.
"A lot of the missing women are from the reservation. When they leave, the jurisdiction changes," Livermont said.
He noted that each reservation is a sovereign nation and that reservations are in remote areas. Even if outside agencies are called in to assist when a young woman is reported missing, the available resources are limited and scattered.
When the South Dakota Legislature met earlier this year, District 27 Rep. Peri Pourier (D) successfully introduced HB1199, which seeks to address this problem. The bill established the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons within the state Office of the Attorney General. The bill was signed into law by the governor on March 25.
Pourier explained in an interview with KELOland the importance of this piece of legislation.
"Indigenous women and children are highly vulnerable because of the gaps in jurisdictions, and South Dakota has a lot of isolated areas. So it's a very vulnerable population," she is quoted as saying.
The South Dakota Missing Persons Clearinghouse indicates 97 missing persons as of April 27. Of these, 67 are Native American even though Native Americans comprise just 9% of the state's population. Of those 67, 38 are women and 43 were teens at the time of their disappearance, both male and female.
DSU faculty members are proud of the student association for working to raise awareness of this issue.
"The more we amplify this issue, hopefully, the more people will get involved in helping to find solutions," said Kari Hall, instructor of exercise science and chair of the campus committee on equity, diversity and inclusion. "It's great that NASA has stepped forward to help amplify this issue."
Jack Walters, professor of management and coordinator of DSU's Master's of Business Administration program, said he has seen similar displays used to raise awareness of other issues, such as sexual assault. In those instances, the garments on display were actually worn by victims of rape at the time of the assault and were intended to dispel the myth that women bring it on themselves.
"It has nothing to do with what they're wearing. It has to do with what was going on in the mind of the person who attacked them," he said.
Walters believes the striking red dresses hanging from the trees around campus can have a similar impact on those who see them, attracting attention to an issue of which many may be unaware.
"I thought it was an imaginative way of doing it," Walters said.
Casualene Meyer, adjunct instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences, who helped collect the red dresses, said many were obtained at Encore or donated by members of MAST (Madison Area Stands Together).
The DSU project reflects a national movement which grew out of an art installation. The REDress Project, initiated in 2010 by multidisciplinary artist Jaime Black of Anishinaabe and Finnish descent, was developed in Canada to focus attention on the issue of missing or murdered Aboriginal women in that country. Since that time, the exhibit has been on display in both Canada and the U.S.
"We want to memorialize the Indian women we have lost," Livermont said. "We are trying to remember them."
In the future, the student association hopes to bring speakers to campus and to do fund-raising to support efforts to prosecute those responsible for these crimes.