Content warning: Discussion of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

Wind is whistling through the trees surrounding a playground. Without children laughing and playing, there is nothing but a fierce, red dress. The red of this garment sits idle in the foreground of yellow monkey bars and green poles.  

The peculiarity of the vivacious red dress amidst the playground holds a story that is usually never told — the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

Fourth-year Arely Hernandez, inspired by her mother and other Indigenous women affected by the missions, photographed the red dress in a playground. Photo courtesy of the Sesnon Gallery.

This spring, the Sesnon Gallery is collaborating with the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) to launch a virtual exhibition titled “In Honor Of Our Sisters.” Sourced from virtual communities, their collaboration gathers portraits and narratives from Indigenous UC Santa Cruz students about Indigenous women in their lives, whether they be relatives, cultural icons, advocates, or political figures.

These injustices inspired third-year Serah Zemaryalai’s art. She has been an intern at the AIRC for the last three years, and is now a lead intern.

“This is an opportunity for the UCSC community to learn about an issue that deeply affects one of the most invisibilized and marginalized communities in this country,” Zemaryalai said. “UCSC’s motto is ‘Fiat Lux,’ a Latin phrase meaning ‘let there be light.’ The AIRC intends to shine a light on MMIWG every year until our event is no longer necessary.” 

AIRC Director Rebecca Hernandez’ piece is inspired by the late iconic Indigenous artist Annie Pootoogook. Photo courtesy of the Sesnon Gallery.

The UCSC exhibition draws inspiration from Canadian artist Jamie Black’s REDress art series, which raises concern for the shocking number of missing and murdered Indigenous women throughout Canada. In the U.S., Indigenous women face homicide rates that are more than 10 times higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Black’s series is made up of red dresses that are hung or laid flat in public places, with each dress representing a missing or murdered Indigenous woman.

The first in-person MMIWG exhibit was held in 2019 at a long corridor in the Bay Tree Building on campus, near the Ethnic Resource Center (ERC) lounge. They hung red dresses all over the corridor, and each dress was accompanied by a testimonial from an AIRC intern.

Third-year Tahnee Henningsen’s piece is accompanied by a poem dedicated to her late mother who she never got to meet. Photo courtesy of the Sesnon Gallery.

The AIRC has organized the REDress project annually since 2019 and, just this year, decided to collaborate with the Sesnon Gallery to create a virtual exhibition. Sesnon Underground intern Edie Trautwein was grateful to work with the AIRC and promote awareness and activism for the MMIWG movement. 

“Coming from the perspective of allyship and wanting to work to support the AIRC’s larger goals,” said Trautwein. “It was just really important for us to be respectful and to give the show the honor and the dignity that it deserves.”

This year, AIRC interns wrote about Indigenous women in their lives and how it would feel if those women were taken away. These testimonies were among the many used on the Sesnon Gallery’s Exhibition page, accompanied by photos submitted by not only interns, but staff, alumni, and others. 

Amanda Collins, lead intern at the AIRC and the first Indigenous director at Rainbow Theatre, has had many powerful female influences throughout her life, including her two older sisters, her mother, and the women at the AIRC.

AIRC Program Coordinator Jemzi Ortiz’ (Merrill ‘19) images were taken at the site of the original Native American Cemetery Wall, dedicated to her deceased loved ones. Photo courtesy of the Sesnon Gallery.

“When one of us goes missing, it is a loss for all, and when our pleas for justice are ignored, it’s an injustice toward us all,” Collins said in the exhibit. “We do not need legislature or task forces to tell us we have value, but without persistent advocacy, we fear non-Natives will continue to forget us.”

This exhibition is leading up to the AIRC’s three-day event series, “Seeking Justice for our Sisters,” honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) from May 3 to May 5. 

Throughout the three-day event series, audiences can view AIRC presentations about the MMIWG crisis in Northern California and listen into a conversation with Jamie Black. 

“It’s really important that people outside of the Native community know about MMIWG. [The Sesnon Gallery] offered up space on their platform to uplift our voices, the voices of Indigenous women,” said Zemaryalai. “You don’t have to understand what the dresses mean, but it’s your responsibility to find out.”

To register for “Seeking Justice for Our Sisters,” click here. To view the exhibition, click here.