‘Sing Our Rivers Red’ exhibit raises awareness about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people

Aug. 18—The staggering number of crimes committed against Indigenous women and girls within America and Canada continues to rise and thousands of cases are sadly left cold.

“Sing Our Rivers Red,” an exhibit that opened this spring at the Dairy Arts Center, aims to bring awareness to the mass injustices that occur year after year.

A sea of multi-hued earrings — some beaded, others woven and all without a corresponding match — literally encase the exhibition as they wrap around the gallery wall. Gathered and donated by individuals who have personally felt the pain of losing a loved one or who are still clinging to hope waiting for a missing daughter, sister or mother to return home, they become so much more than a throng of lone accessories.

Two simultaneous circulating collections of the jewelry — one started in 2015 — have been combined resulting in the culmination of over 5,000 single earrings.

Each earring represents a current Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) case in North America.

A wall filled with letters from folks who have been impacted by the epidemic and photographs of missing or murdered Indigenous individuals add yet another heart-wrenching layer to the commanding collection.

From ceremonial ribbon skirts suspended in mid-air — honoring the Indigenous women who have been murdered in Colorado — to larger-than-life murals, all pieces create a strong display that is equally as powerful as it is beautiful and bittersweet.

The exhibition also aims to raise awareness about the Indigenous LGBTQIA members or “two-spirited” relatives who have been taken, tortured, raped, trafficked, assaulted and murdered.

The McMahon Gallery — that is free and open to the public 2-6p.m. Monday-Saturday — takes on an almost ceremonial feel with red thread pinned on the wall, leading up toward the high ceilings as to signify a soul reuniting with Creator.

Chad Yellowjohn, Nathalie Standingcloud, Mary Jane Oatman, Crystal Dugi, Lakota Sage, Olivia Montoya, JayCee Beyale, Sarah Ortegon, Donna Chrisjohn, Jonathan Nelson and Gregg Deal are among the Native artists who have work featured.

Danielle SeeWalker — who was born and raised in Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and is Hunkpapa Lakota — helped curate the compelling group show and also has work in it.

We caught up with the Denver-based artist, author and activist to find out more about how the display has brought healing to some, what other upcoming Native American-centric events we can look forward to seeing at the Dairy and as a founding member of Creative Nations Center and Collective, what she hopes to see take shape in the near future.

Kalene McCort: “Sing Our Rivers Red” is such a powerful collection. What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of having your work featured in it and playing a role in curating the exhibition?

Danielle SeeWalker: The most rewarding part of putting this exhibition together has been knowing that it is raising awareness at levels I wouldn’t have expected. I have had numerous people reach out to me personally and to the Dairy Arts Center saying they had no idea this was such an issue and asking how they can help. I tell them they can continue spreading the word and talking about it. They can take the time to learn about Native American communities around them. They can write to their community legislators. They can participate in grassroots actions within the community.

KM: Even though this exhibition deals with heavy subject matter, I know you consider it to be somewhat healing. What has feedback been from visitors?

DS: Before we opened the exhibition up to the public, we had an invite-only ceremonial event for our Native community. I had one lady reach out to me via social media saying she heard about this ceremony and was wondering if she and her parents could attend because they had donated an earring in honor of their sister/daughter who had been murdered years prior in Southern Colorado. She expressed that even though time had passed, she and her family were still healing from this trauma and coming to events like this really helps in the healing process, especially for her parents. When the day of the event came, the woman found me and came up to introduce herself. She was teary-eyed and told me that she found her sister’s donated earring amongst the thousands hanging and it was directly below a bald eagle feather. That moment for me was validation enough just why I do this type of work.

KM: Last year was stressful for so many reasons and yet you published your first book: “Still Here: A Past to Present Insight of Native American People & Culture.” What inspired this project and what are you hoping readers take away?

DS: It was something I had been wanting to do for a long time, but finding the time was always the problem. So, this was a great project to focus on during the pandemic while I was stuck at home for months. The year prior, I had been approached by a European book editor and they were interested in the subject matter which they had found through another separate project I have been working on since 2013 called “The Red Road Project.”

The project aims to redirect the narrative of Native American people and culture to a more insightful and accurate perspective and also examines what it means to be American Indian in the 21st century. With that said, throughout much of my research and when I give lectures or public talks, I’m often asked the same questions over and over again. This prompted me to want to write a book that is an easy-reader and addresses many of these questions. It’s designed for students and/or folks that may know little to nothing about American Indian tribes, culture or people in a historical and/or contemporary way. My goal with this book is that the reader learns something new or, even if it’s a familiar topic, it can be understood from different perspective: that of a Native American person, which is a perspective not often told.

KM: I love the representation we are seeing more of at the Dairy, such as the Native American comedy showcase that happened last month. Are there any more Native American-centric events that should be on our radar?

DS: Yes. There is going to be so much more Native American events, exhibits and shows happening. We are bringing back round two of the Native American Comedy and that is on Sept. 4 with a whole new lineup. We are also planning some upcoming workshops to learn traditional arts and our big event will be centered around Indigenous Peoples’ Day with performance, fashion show, films, artist talks and hopefully an art market — All of which will be housed at the Dairy Arts Center. The Dairy has been so gracious to give Creative Nations a physical space for us to be housed and so we plan to utilize those various arts spaces quite a bit.

KM: As one of the founders of Creative Nations Center and Collective, the permanent onsite establishment for Indigenous artists at the Dairy, what are some bucket-list goals you wish to see happen in the near future?

DS: We have big visions and believe in our mission of healing humanity through creativity and art. Personally, what gets me most excited is that we are an arts collective that focuses on all arts across all Nations. From culinary, visual arts, traditional arts, performance arts, fashion, digital, comedy, literary and more — we want to offer space, opportunity and a platform for Indigenous artists to put themselves out there. With us being in an urban area, it’s also very important for us to bridge that gap for artists living on reservations and in rural areas to also be given that opportunity and audience to see their talents. We are still building our foundation, but stay tuned to see big things in the near future.

Angelia S. Rico

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