Bristol Bay artist's qaspeq continues to document the toll of MMIP by lifting up their stories
On Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day at the Curyung Tribal Council building in Dillingham, middle school students danced to honor lost community members. In public places around town, red dresses hung with small posters that offered statistics on the number of Indigenous people who are murdered or go missing. Outside Kanakanak Hospital, dozens of staff wore red to recognize those who face that violence.
They joined hands for a moment of silence. Then, organizer Tiffany Webb spoke, underscoring the scale of the problem. She said that 5,712 women and girls were reported murdered or missing in the United States in 2016, and just 116 cases were logged with the Department of Justice, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
“I think what makes this so remarkable is that as Native women, we’re more likely to be murdered than we are to graduate high school, own a home, or live past the age of 55,” she said.
While there is no definitive count of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the homicide rate among Native women is 7.3 out of 100,000, though that study didn’t take into account people who were not part of federally recognized Tribes. The National Institute of Justice found that more than four in five Alaska Native and Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime.
“What I really want people to understand is that it’s not because we live high-risk lifestyles. We are targeted at an astonishingly high rate,” Webb continued.
Her sister, Yup’ik artist Amber Webb, works to address systemic racism and sexism through her art. In 2018, she started a project to address the issue directly.
“It was actually on New Years, and there was a story on the news of a lady that had been killed. And I decided that day to go buy some sheets from a thrift store and start the qaspeq project and do a prototype,” she said.
Webb used those sheets to sew an enormous qaspeq, a traditional overshirt with a hood and a large front pocket. Then she used a permanent marker to draw the faces of more than a dozen Alaska Native women who had gone missing or were killed.
People started paying attention to the project. Webb won an artist grant through the Rasmuson Foundation and used that money to create a larger, 13-foot qaspeq that will be part of a national art show this year. Since the project began four years ago, she has sewed three garments — qaspeq in Yup’ik, also called a kuspuk — which are often patterned and trimmed.
Webb’s latest qaspeq features more than 250 Native women and girls from across Alaska, Canada, and the U.S. At first, she researched those people by herself, online. Then, she started to work with the Sovereign Bodies Institute.
“I would look up names, and I'd look at photos and I would read everything I could find about these women. And then I would spend about maybe like two to six hours drawing their portrait with Sharpie on the garment,” Webb said. “Sometimes I didn't feel anything. You know, I would be sad, but I wouldn't feel super intensely, like, nauseous, but then sometimes I would get physically ill. And I never really knew which portraits would do that.”
There is a historic and pervasive lack of data on MMIP throughout the country. The Curyung Tribal Council is working to fill the data void on missing and murdered Indigenous people from Bristol Bay. It documented 31 cases of people from the region who went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2021. Tribal Administrator Courtenay Carty said there have been additional cases since then.
Alaska Native and Native American people are disproportionately more likely to face violence in their lifetime. According to a report from the Department of Justice, Native men and women experience similar rates of violence, but in different ways. Both men and women experienced similar rates of psychological aggression. But it’s more likely that women will experience sexual violence and stalking.
Webb has reflected a lot on the emotional and physical toll of documenting some of those stories.
“I don't think I understood at the time how much of an impact that would have on my health into the future,” she said. “Because you don't just forget, and you don't just put those stories down once you know them. Like I will never forget those stories.”
Webb pointed to other activists who have used art and visual demonstrations to direct public attention to the crisis: Lakota runner Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel painted a red hand print across her mouth when she ran the Boston Marathon to raise awareness of the issue. And Métis artist Jamie Black started the REDress Project, an installation where red dresses are hung in public spaces as a visual reminder of the enormous number of women impacted by the epidemic.
Webb said the qaspeq project is her way of building on a movement that has been growing for years in the U.S. and Canada.
“It was a way to center the topic without asking people's relatives to do all that emotional labor over and over again to talk about their loved ones, when that's really challenging, it's painful,” she said. “And because they're all hand drawn portraits, I think it was a way to give women a respectful amount of anonymity, while also acknowledging what happened to them.”
Webb said the way these cases are talked about and investigated is changing — locally and internationally. In the last year, the Alaska MMIP Working Group met every month to discuss a wide range of issues. So far, it has met with more than half — 170 of 229 — of the state’s federally recognized Tribes, and the Justice Department says that feedback is informing the development of Savanna’s Act, a federal law aimed at addressing crimes against Indigenous people.
Passed in 2020, Savanna’s Act is a bipartisan effort to improve the federal response to missing and murdered Indigenous people. It aims to improve data collection and increase access to databases, as well as to improve coordination between Tribal, local state and federal agencies and empower Tribes to respond to the epidemic.
Webb has also inspired young artists in the region to raise awareness of the issue. In a small conference room in the hospital, 30 colorful paper qaspeqs line the walls. The Alaska Native dance class from the school crafted them to represent people from Bristol Bay who have gone missing.
Webb said she’s amazed at the response to the qaspeq project. The Department of Justice included images from the qaspeq in a recent video on MMIP. It was also hung at the state capitol in Juneau during testimony on Savanna’s Act.
“It was, I think, the first time they'd ever used an art piece to provide context when people were calling in to give testimony about why Alaskan Native people need inclusion in [the Violence Against Women Act], and why Savanna’s Act needed to pass,” Webb said.
Webb also wants to show Native women are more than MMIP. So she has started to incorporate Yup’ik storytelling and some graphic styles from Yup’ik art into her new work.
“I'm trying to create work that uplifts people's accomplishments, uplifts their stories, so that people feel proud of who they are. And so that people understand that tragedy isn't our only identity. That's not who we are,” she said. “I would like to start work on a project around some of the stories about the Bow and Arrow Wars, and some of the stories about our warrior teachings. And then I wanted to do some more work around decolonizing how we see our bodies and how we see our relationships with each other as Native people.”
Webb’s qaspeq is part of a national art show at the Pratt Museum in Homer that opens in June. It’s called Protection: Adaptation & Resistance.
Here is a guide for families and loved ones on how to respond when someone goes missing: When a Loved One Goes Missing: Resources for Families of Missing American Indian and Alaska Native Adults
If you need to talk with someone, contact StrongHearts Native Helpline at 844-7NATIVE (844-762-8483) or the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center at 907-328-3990. Additionally, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678) offers resources to help families looking for a missing child.
Correction: The UIHI said that 5,712 women and girls were reported murdered or missing in 2016, not 5,172 as originally reported. Additionally, KDLG updated this article with the CDC's homicide rate for Native women and the National Institute for Justice's statistics on the rate of violence Native women face.
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