Remembrance: Honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, curated by the Yale Sisters of All Nations opened at the Ezra Stiles Art Gallery yesterday. The creation of the artwork and the installation of the exhibition coincide with efforts led by Indigenous women annually on February 14 that call attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women, transgender, and Two-Spirit people who face epidemic levels of violence in North America. In Canada, Indigenous women are at least 6 times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women, and there is reason to believe the reported number is low. According to the US Justice Department, women on some reservations are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average. Indigenous women in the US and Canada face disproportionately high rates of sexual assault and murder. The Yale Sisters of All Nations’ Remembrance exhibition contributes to the important work Indigenous women have long been doing to raise awareness of this epidemic and to promote healing in their communities.
Upon entering the gallery, the visitor immediately sees four shawls hanging in the center of the room, suspended in pairs. Each shawl represents a different stage of life: infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Behind the shawls, on the back three walls of the gallery, hang numerous other pieces by the Yale Native community and allies. The shawls are positioned higher than the other pieces, as though they are being uplifted and centered with the support of the surrounding works.
Four Indigenous women designed each of the shawls. As wall-text in the gallery explains, “each design originates from a different Indigenous culture, representing the impact of violence against Indigenous women across various communities.” Haylee Kushi (Kanaka Maoli) stressed that although the designs were created individually, “the rest of the shawl-making was really collaborative.” This collaboration to create art together shows that violence is not the only, and is certainly not the most powerful, thread connecting Indigenous women and communities. The raised shawls and the surrounding works imbue the gallery space with a sense of power; as Kushi said, “the exhibit is the kind of thing that a Native community does best together, and I think in a lot of ways was a good metaphor for how we heal.”
Kushi drew from common Hawaiian quilt patterns and stories of Haumea, “the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, fertility, and motherhood,” while creating the design for the Infancy shawl. She hoped “ to commemorate both mothers and babies who are affected by the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.” Andrea Wiglesworth (Seneca Cayuga), who designed the Adolescence shawl, said that she “depicted the turquoise flowers sprouting up out of traditional Haudenosaunee arc designs because during our adolescence we become less enmeshed with our parents, growing from the foundation that they’ve given us.” Her design of bright, sprouting flowers emerging from semi circles visually guides the visitor to the Adulthood shawl, designed by Alanna Pyke (Akwesasne Mohawk). Pyke also incorporated semi circles in her design, “with small sprouts shooting upward, representing life as fully formed.” Taken together, these two shawls speak to the continuity between the stages of life even as they express the stark differences between them. Katie McCleary (Little Shell Chippewa-Cree, Crow Nation) designed the fourth shawl on Old Age, using bright colors reminiscent of those on the Infancy and Adolescence shawls. McCleary said that “although, many women in our communities are disappeared before this stage in life, I used the varied colors to represent how they continue to affect and influence us.” The shawls and the works that surround them present a powerful image and a sense of intimacy in the small gallery space.
Describing her thoughts on the exhibition, Kushi said, “I really hope that it made people think about women who are missing and murdered as people who lived full lives; they wore shawls and they danced and they sang.” At the opening of the exhibition, Native students ran their fingers through the red fringes of the shawls, making the art sway and interact with the people and the space around them. The bench below the shawls invited visitors to sit and converse in the company of the art. And the shawls were seemingly embraced by the semicircle of art by Native people and allies that surrounded them, conveying a sense of community and support. The very design of the exhibition promotes Kushi’s image of the full, vibrant lives of the Indigenous women that it honors.
The exhibition is on view until this Friday, February 24, at the Ezra Stiles Art Gallery. To help fight violence against Indigenous women, you can learn more and donate on the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center website.
*Photo by Andrea Wiglesworth