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Michigan State University

‘REDress Project’ comes to MSU

This story contains references to lives lost and sensitive topics regarding violence perpetrated against women.

Women’s History Month is a time dedicated to recognizing women’s contributions and efforts throughout history. This observance begins on March 1, when people on MSU’s campus may notice 60 red dresses installed along West Circle Drive in areas around the MSU Museum and Beal Botanical Gardens.

Headshot of the artist

These dresses are part of an art installation titled “The REDress Project” by Métis artist Jaime Black-Morsette, which comes to MSU to commemorate Women’s History Month.

Black-Morsette created the project in 2009 in response to the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in North America.

Indigenous women in Canada and the United States face disproportionately high rates of violence, which is why Black-Morsette became inspired to create this art piece. The project raises awareness of the issue at hand and serves as a visual reminder of the growing number of those experiencing violence.

“Through the haunting beauty of suspended red dresses, ‘The REDress Project’ affirms our commitment to amplifying Indigenous voices, advocating for their rights and standing in solidarity against the epidemic of violence on Indigenous women and girls, demanding justice and accountability,” said MSU Native American Institute Interim Director Kevin Leonard, who played a role in connecting with Black-Morsette.

The project has traveled to over 50 locations globally, visiting museums and universities. To bring the exhibition to MSU, the MSU Museum collaborated with the campus Native American Institute, the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program, Beal Botanical Garden, EAGLE, or Educating Anishinaabe: Giving, Learning and Empowering, and Project 70/60 from the Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

“The MSU Museum is honored to present this installation in collaboration with our campus partners,” expressed MSU Museum Director Devon Akmon. “This project embodies our vision of an MSU community, inspired and informed by the arts, working collaboratively, creatively and equitably to solve problems and pursue a better world for all.”

Close up of red dress with sunlight shining through
Photo of red dress with sunlight shining through

The red dresses for the exhibition at MSU come from Black-Morsette’s collection, which has been gathered over time and from donations from local Native communities.

“MSU is sadly no stranger to issues of violence or sexual assault. And as we work to heal and do better as a community, having this installation here reminds us all of the resiliency in loss and the ways we all might work to raise visibility and make change,” said Kristin Arola, interim director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program and Gillmor Endowed Professor in Professional and Public Writing.

Raising visibility and making change is precisely what Black-Morsette had in mind when creating the project. The dresses are left empty, without mannequins, intentionally. They symbolize the absence and presence of Indigenous women and girls affected by violence while creating a platform to further the conversation.

Becky Roy (left), Lansing resident and Wiikwemkoong First Nation Tribal member, helped create an art installation alongside the REDress exhibition to draw attention to the issue. As Roy worked on it, the project transformed and gathered interest from her friends in the Native community, including Rachel Rodgers (right), Wiikwemkoong First Nation Tribal member, who assisted with the setup. In addition, the following women community members contributed to the piece: Gloria Gizhiiwegdiziikwe Mainville Manitowabi, Ojibwa of Couchiching First Nation; Dr. Nichole Keway Biber, WaabanAnang, LTBB Waganakising Odawa, Mishiike Dodem; Roxanne DeLand-Phillips, LTBB Waganakising Odawa, Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians; Kathy Yates, Nokomis Board Member; Michelle DeLand, LTBB Waganakising Odawa; Carol Howard, Waabananangoons, LTBB Waganakising Odawa.

The Bureau of Justice reports that when Indigenous women are victims of violent crimes, 88% of the perpetrators are non-Indigenous. In the U.S., federally recognized Tribes lack jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indigenous people for crimes committed on Tribal land.

“Highlighting issues important to American Indian and Indigenous communities is an important act for MSU,” said Arola. “If we are to truly hold MSU accountable to the needs of American Indian and Indigenous peoples, as the AIIS land acknowledgment states, part of that work is leveraging our resources to raise awareness about issues important to our communities.”

By Stephanie Palagyi and Brigita Felkers, originally published on MSU Today

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