In Edmonds, red robes represent a crisis of missing aboriginals

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Pamela Bond during a remembrance for missing and murdered indigenous people at Edmonds Lutheran Church in Edmonds on Wednesday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

EDMONDS – Jennifer Bereskin held Edmonds teenager Kyra Isaac tightly in her arms on the lawn of Edmonds Lutheran Church on Wednesday afternoon.

Ahead of them, church leaders and advocates for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIPs) had patted dark, damp earth around a seedling planted in honor of Indigenous peoples who have been murdered or gone missing. Around the church lawn, red dresses hung from the trees and shrubbery blowing in the breeze, visual reminders of lost Native women.

Edmonds Church member Isaac organized a Red Dress Project installation at the church to raise awareness of the MMIP crisis. She did it out of necessity.

“Knowing that I am personally at greater risk of being reported missing or murdered,” she said, “I don’t want this to be accepted anymore.”

May 5 is a national awareness day for indigenous peoples who go missing and are killed every year. This week, there were 126 active such cases in Washington, according to state patrol.

The Red Dress Project facility will remain at Edmonds Lutheran Church until Monday. The tree planted during the opening ceremony will remain as a living memorial on the church campus.

The ceremony was the first MMIP outreach event at Edmonds that Bereskin, of Snohomish and Unangax descent, has seen in his lifetime.

“When I was 15 and my family was homeless, I was nearly trafficked off Highway 99 there by the Safeway, Bereskin said.

Kyra Isaac (left), artist of The Red Dress Project, and Jennifer Bereskin embrace during a remembrance for missing and murdered Aboriginal people at Edmonds Lutheran Church in Edmonds on Wednesday.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kyra Isaac (left), artist of The Red Dress Project, and Jennifer Bereskin embrace during a remembrance for missing and murdered Aboriginal people at Edmonds Lutheran Church in Edmonds on Wednesday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“We didn’t call the police because we had already experienced police brutality,” she said. “As a child, you should feel protected in your community. You should feel that you have the ability to be safe and that if you call the police or ask the system for help, the system will do its job.

But that has not been the reality for many Aboriginal families.

Isaac is on the youth leadership of the Seattle Indian Health Board, the Kiis Council. She invited Abigail Echo-Hawk, head of research for the Seattle Indian Health Board, to speak at the memorial event.

Echo-Hawk co-authored a groundbreaking report in 2018 that finally put data behind the stories Indigenous leaders had been telling lawmakers and law enforcement for years.

The report identified 506 unique cases of missing and murdered Native American and Alaska Native women and girls in 71 cities. Of those, 71 cases were in Washington state. Seattle had the highest number: 45.

According to the National Institute of Justice, approximately four out of five Indigenous women have experienced violence, and more than half of all Indigenous women have experienced sexual violence.

Kyra Isaac's Red Dress Project at Edmonds Lutheran Church in Edmonds.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kyra Isaac’s Red Dress Project at Edmonds Lutheran Church in Edmonds. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Raising awareness is the first step in dealing with the crisis, Echo-Hawk said. And that shouldn’t be the responsibility of young natives like Isaac.

“It also means you have to confront the traumas that exist within our communities due to ongoing colonialism and attempts at genocide,” Echo-Hawk said.

Pamela Bond SeaMonster put down her microphone to tell a traditional story to the dozens of community members in attendance on Wednesday.

She described a rabbit that was slowly stripped of its limbs, leaving it unable to continue singing and beating its drum. This story, passed down to Bond SeaMonster by her family, has always stayed with her.

Diana Nielsen walks through the Red Dress Project at Edmonds Lutheran Church in Edmonds.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Diana Nielsen walks through the Red Dress Project at Edmonds Lutheran Church in Edmonds. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“As I got older, I was always looking for a ‘bunny’ in my class,” Bond told SeaMonster. “I wanted to make sure everyone liked ‘bunny’, because…I thought ‘bunny’ was this downtrodden little boy or girl.”

Over the years, she said she realized “rabbit” was her father. He was placed in the government-run boarding school on the Tulalip reservation, where “he had all his pieces torn apart,” she said. “He was uprooted from his land and sent elsewhere. He was torn apart as a human being. He was not allowed to speak his language. Her beautiful long hair that went down beyond her buttocks: cut.

Understanding the trauma her father and generations suffered — as a result of the federal government’s efforts to colonize, sterilize and assimilate Indigenous peoples — helps explain current struggles, she said.

These federal agents “may have chosen to work side by side with us,” said Cathy Baylor of the Flathead Nation. “They might have chosen to work with us to build a society together. But instead they chose rape, pillage and murder.

Then, in 1978, tribal criminal jurisdiction was revoked. For years, until the Violence Against Women Act was enacted, serious crimes committed by non-Indigenous offenders often went unpunished in Indian Country.

“So now, today, in direct line with the actions of the past,” Baylor said, “our women are disappearing.”

Isabelle Breda: 425-339-3192; [email protected] Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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