AIRWAY HEIGHTS – Armed with sewing machines, 3 yards of red fabric each, red yarn and pins, a group of tribal women have banded together.
Over the last two evenings inside the community space of a modern apartment complex here, they have made red, traditional A-line skirts. Saturday from 10 a.m. until the sewing is finished, they will continue. Sunday, they will don the skirts to march together as a contingent of tribal women in the Spokane Women’s Persistence March, in honor of missing and murdered indigenous women.
The march, which starts at noon at the Big Red Wagon in Riverfront Park, will go on a route around downtown before ending at the Convention Center. The native women plan on meeting at the Spokane Opera House at 11 a.m., said organizer Shawnee Bearcub.
Last year, the Spokane Women’s March brought an estimated 8,000 marchers downtown, according to the Spokesman-Review, and many of the tribal women sewing had been there, brought together in impromptu effort. This year, for many, has already been a reunion, said Bearcub.
The women’s march has fit tribal communities. The role of women – particularly grandmothers – in Plateau Tribes is special, said Colville Tribal member Theresa Ellisoff.
“The women are the torch-bearers for passing down our traditions and cultures, the storytelling, the don’ts and dos of tribal relationships. Those things are important,” said Ellisoff.
But violence against tribal women is much higher than that against their non-tribal peers.
According to a fact sheet provided from a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington March, indigenous women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.
The same fact sheet notes more than 4 in 5 indigenous women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 indigenous women have experience sexual violence.
Chantel Hill, a Crow Tribal member who sewed with her mother, Lydia, noted a cousin of hers had been murdered last year on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. That cousin left behind five children in her passing.
“When you have missing family members, and their deaths are unresolved, I think that confusion, that pain just lingers,” said Ellisoff. “It doesn’t go away for families. It creates all kinds of havoc for the family members, even for the tribal communities.”
“What I like is that even though we have some of our mothers, women and children that are hurting because of all the cultural assaults we have been through, now what you see is not forgetting those that aren’t here and can’t speak for themselves,” said Ellisoff. “We choose not to forget and to honor them. Every life has worth.”
As she sewed, Grace Branstetter, Apache, talked about the necklace she wore. She had made the necklace: “The red beads represent the women that are missing. The black beads are Apache tears, which...represent the emotional loss of the family groups. The obsidian is supposed to be calming… Up here is the mother and father of the missing.”
Branstetter sewed along with her daughter, Noelle.
With the march, the group joins an international effort between First Nations in Canada and tribes in the United States to bring awareness to the violence in what they’re calling The Red Skirt Project – and the hope is that during a year in which sexual violence against women has been forced into the national conversation with the #metoo movement, so might more attention be shed into violence against indigenous women.
Bearcub also encouraged tribal members to wear scarves, shalls or other traditional clothing to the march.