Colorfully beaded earrings sparkled on a burlap cloth in the gallery room of Ezra Stiles College on Sunday. Unpaired and distinct, the earrings stood together in their representation of the more than 1,181 Native women and girls who have been reported missing or murdered in Canada since 1980.
The earrings, alongside a painting by Chicana artist Nani Chacon, is a part of the traveling display “Sing Our Rivers Red” that aims to draw attention to the injustices and violence faced by Indigenous women and LGBTQQIA people. Decorating the Stiles Gallery until April 9, the exhibit displays more than 3,400 earrings, donated from people around the world. In addition to reflecting on the artwork, students who attended the Sunday opening held a group prayer and participated in a smudging ceremony, a cleansing smoke ritual in which sage is burnt to purify bodies and ceremonial spaces.
“If people can come see the exhibition and be moved by it, we hope that can create some solidarity for us and that they will go back to their communities and speak on behalf of Native Americans,” said Karléh Wilson ’16, who led the exhibit’s launch at Yale.
Members of Yale Sisters of All Nations, a student organization of Native women, visited the exhibition at the American Indian Community House in New York City this summer and reached out to the exhibition’s head curator Tanaya Winder to bring the display to Yale.
Haylee Kushi ’18, a member of Yale Sisters of All Nations who attended the launch, said Native women are targeted and face unusually high levels of violence, noting that those who live on reservations exist in a legal space that affords them less protection. Reservations in both Canada and the United States are not subject to state laws and instead operate under tribal law. But non-Natives who commit violent crimes on reservations are not subject to tribal law or state law. Instead, she said, such cases go to federal courts where offenders are rarely made to face legal ramifications for their actions.
Kushi said she hopes the exhibit raises awareness about the unique difficulties Native women face, adding that society often merges all people of color together, erasing the salience of issues that are specific to certain groups.
“It is a really hard concept to grasp, that you can’t prosecute an offender, but a lot of Native Americans really can’t,” Wilson said.
Students at the opening expressed shock at the number of missing and murdered Native women. Sarah Armstrong ’18 said she is glad the Native American Cultural Center, which supports the Yale Sisters of All Nations as a constituent organization, is drawing attention to the challenges Native women are faced with by using such a creative medium.
Jorge Meneses ’19, who attended the opening, said he was impressed by the artwork itself and its ability to convey an important message. In particular, he said the long burlap cloth that the earrings are displayed on invoked the mental image of a river of sorrow.
“[The display] helps you literally dive into the pain, injustice and anger of this problem,” Meneses said.
Head NACC Peer Liaison Rose Bear Don’t Walk ’16 said she thinks the exhibit provides a tangible way for Yale students to understand the enormity of the violence indigenous women in North America face, adding that she hopes people also remember that there are many survivors of violence as well who deserve healing and prayers.