The REDress Project Comes to Wellesley in Honor of Indigenous Peoples Day

A photo shows a woman in movement, wearing a red blanket-like dress and surrounded by trees with snow on the ground.
Image credit: Jaime Black
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 
This story has been updated to reflect changes in the dates of the exhibition and artist talk.

The story of Gabrielle Petito, the 22-year-old white woman who went missing in early September while on a road trip with her fiancé, has been a recent fixture in national headlines; Petito’s body was eventually found in a national park in Wyoming, and the case remains open and under investigation. But Petito is far from the only woman to ever go missing in Wyoming—in fact, 710 Indigenous people, mostly young girls, have been reported missing over the past decade in the state. Rarely, though, do Indigenous girls, or women of color in general, get the kind of media attention Petito has. Artist Jaime Black and the students of Wellesley’s Native American Student Association (NASA) are working to change that through the art installation the REDress Project.

Jaime Black is a Winnipeg, Manitoba-based multidisciplinary artist of mixed Anishinaabe and Finnish descent who began the REDress Project in 2010 as “an aesthetic response to the more than 1,000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.” Black hangs red dresses—haunting, floating, empty—in installations at public spaces in Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of and stand-in for the thousands of Native women who go missing every year. Many of the dresses have been donated to Black by families who want to honor a missing loved one. “Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence,” writes Black on her website

Emma Slibeck ’24, president of NASA, has followed Black’s work since she was in high school. Slibeck, a descendant of the ​​Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, grew up in the East Village of New York; her school had no Native American student association. She worked alone to try to bring attention to Native issues, and even reached out to Black about bringing the REDress Project to her high school her senior year, but then COVID-19 hit and made the installation impossible. When Slibeck started at Wellesley last fall, she was thrilled to discover NASA. She immediately messaged Kisha James ’21 on Facebook and quickly became involved in the organization. Slibeck had stayed in touch with Black, and her first mission as president was to bring the REDress Project to Wellesley in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, though the installation of the project was delayed until December.

The Native members of NASA will be installing the red dresses in five different spots on campus: in the Academic Quad, by Alumnae Hall and the Lulu, by the Science Center, on the Chapel Lawn, and along the main road. Black will supervise the installation via FaceTime. The dresses will remain in place until December 21, with a virtual artist talk on December 9 at 6:00 p.m.

“The REDress Project is visually stunning,” Slibeck said, “and it is a great way to get the conversations going.” On the most basic level, Slibeck hopes the REDress Project will make the entire Wellesley community aware of MMIWG2S (which stands for “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2-Spirit People”) and the history surrounding the Violence Against Women Act, tribal sovereignty, and how they are connected.

“But on a more elevated level, I hope people feel empowered to involve more Native voices and stories in their own lives and activism,” said Slibeck. “I want there to be more of a public sense of outrage about MMIWG2S. I want people to feel those emotions and use them.” Slibeck is already heartened that the NASA mailing list includes many more names than just those of Wellesley’s dozen Native students. There are allies who want to help lift up Native voices, and Slibeck hopes the REDress Project will encourage even more non-Native folks to join the fight. Slibeck referenced Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s paper “Decolonization is not a metaphor” and the idea of “settler moves to innocence”—with each generation further removed from those early days of genocide, it becomes easier and easier for ancestors of colonizers to distance themselves from those horrific acts.

“There are a lot of people who think, ‘I’m not Christopher Columbus, what happened to Native Americans isn’t my fault.’ But you’re not exempt,” said Slibeck. “No one is exempt. You live in what is currently known as the United States.”