Among representatives of multiple tribal nations attending the University of Utah’s 46th annual Pow Wow on April 6 and 7 were silent guests who drew the attention of everyone around them. Surrounding the head staff’s table were red cutouts in the shape of a woman’s silhouette. Each figure bore the name of an indigenous woman who is missing or who has been murdered.
The decision to honor the women and raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) was made by the Inter-Tribal Student Association (ITSA) at the U.
“We wanted to honor our indigenous women,” said Kassaundra John, a first year graphic design student who grew up on the Navajo reservation. “We didn’t want to just say honoring our women, we wanted to bring awareness to a cause that we all agree with.”
As a member of the Pow Wow committee, John took part in organizing the event and used her background in graphic design to create the staff t-shirts. She said she often draws upon her culture for inspiration and incorporates native symbols in her designs.
The MMIW committee was created in Salt Lake City by Carol Surveyor and Cassandra Begay to bring awareness to the high rates of violence experienced by indigenous women.
A May 2016 study released by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service found that “most American-Indian and Alaska-Native adults are victims of violence, with approximately 83 percent having experienced some form of violence in their lifetimes.”
Moreover, the study found that the rate of violence experienced by American-Indian and Alaska-Native women is 1.2 times higher than that of white women. The study highlighted that, within these statistics, interracial violence is more prevalent than intraracial violence, thus providing “support for the sovereign right of federally recognized tribes to criminally prosecute non-Indian perpetrators.”
The founders of the committee, Surveyor and Begay, are both members of the Navajo Nation and have respectively lost their mother and aunt to murder on the reservation. Begay is a graduate student at Utah Valley University and serves as a tribal liaison for the Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support (PANDOS). Surveyor is a former congressional candidate in Utah’s second district and a co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters.
Alexis Munoa Dyer Pechanga, a member of the Band of Luiseño Indians, also known as Payómkawichum (the People of the West), is a photographer on the board of the MMIW art committee. She feels the dances at the Pow Wow bring healing.
“These stories are really hard to process, to hear about and to have happen in our communities, to our families, to our sisters, to our cousins, to our aunties,” Pechanga said. “For me, dancing in honor of them is a way to heal my own heart and strengthen myself and strengthen my community. I dance for those who can’t.”
Denae Shanidiin is Diné, or Navajo, and the artistic director and lead campaign manager for the MMIW chapter of PANDOS. The concept of the red cutouts was her idea.
“It has been really powerful to have these cut outs with the women’s names who have gone missing or who have been murdered,” she said, adding that, “we [indigenous women] don’t make the national news when we are murdered or we have gone missing.”
Shanidiin, who has also lost an aunt to murder, said that she is grateful to see awareness raised around the issue through the Pow Wow at the U. She believes that higher education for native people is a way to create change.
“If [indigenous people] are going to survive in this world, we are going to have to learn these things in this system that wasn’t ever ours but is a part of us now,” Shanidiin said.
Change is exactly what Tiara Willie, a member of the Navajo tribe, wants to bring to her education at the U. Willie is a first year student pursuing a Bachelor of Science in chemistry with an atmospheric and environmental emphasis. On April 4, she was elected to be the 2018-2019 University of Utah American Indian Scholar.
“[I am] passionate about pushing other Native American youth, especially in urban areas, to go into further education, because I lived on the reservation where no one really told me about what college was,” said Willie.
A study released by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2008 revealed that in 2006, “American Indian/Alaska Native students accounted for 1 percent of total enrollment in colleges and universities.”
“Education is a form of activism which is why I am really passionate about it,” Willie said. “I want more representation especially at institutions of higher education because it is such as small number that actually go to college and I would like to break that stereotype.”