By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR
BOZEMAN – The figures of women, cut out of red poster paper, dotted the bleachers of the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse at Bozeman’s Montana State University on March 29 and 30. The red silhouettes, which stood out amid the colorful regalia and handmade apparel adorned by native dancers during the 44th annual American Indian Council Powwow, were placed in the stands as a form of remembrance for indigenous women and girls that have gone missing or been murdered.
This year’s student-organized powwow was dedicated to these victims as the Montana Congress is considering a bill meant to help with the state’s missing persons investigations. Known as Hanna’s Act, House Bill 21 would create a missing persons specialist within the Montana Department of Justice. After passing through the House in a 99-0 vote, the bill will now go before the Senate for consideration.
“There’s almost a crisis going on right now that we should all be putting our minds together [to solve],” said Nick Ross-Dick, MSU’s American Indian/Alaskan Native Student Success program manager. “For me, personally and professionally, if there was a group that I wouldn’t be more encouraged to have address that, it’d be these students [in the American Indian Council] that are passionate about education, about learning; that are passionate about the opportunities they have to engage here on this campus.”
Dozens of indigenous women go missing every year in Montana, and the Urban Indian Health Institute reports that our state is among the top five with the highest number of missing and murdered cases. The institute reported that more than 5,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women went missing or were murdered across the nation in 2016, though only 116 cases were logged with the Department of Justice’s missing persons database. Without a central tracking authority, the institute says the exact number of missing or murdered indigenous women is unknown.
“There simply isn’t an adequate structure in place to collect data. There’s not enough resources and manpower to help. We really don’t know how many cases there are [of] our women and young girls missing,” Ross-Dick said. “That’s really frightening. These are people we know, people we’ve known, people we grew up with and they go missing. And we don’t see them, we don’t hear from them. The families are in shambles. They’re trying to piece [what happened] back together day in and day out. … The students wanted to really honor those that are going through that right now.”
To further highlight this issue, Zariah Whiteplume, who is the 2019-2020 Miss Teen MSU princess, invited all of the women dancers to compete in the Red Dress Spotlight Special by adorning a red dress or shawl and dancing to remember those who have been lost. “When I was younger, I witnessed domestic violence, but I was too young to understand,” she said before also taking part in the dance.
Members of seven tribes across the West competed in Bozeman for the powwow, taking part in men’s and women’s traditional dancing. They wore handmade clothing that included elk-teeth dresses, embroidered shawls, porcupine-hair headdresses and bustles made from pheasant, hawk and eagle feathers.
In addition to competitive dancing, each tribe participated in the drum contest, with a total of $3,000 awarded to the top three winners.
The powwow was preceded on March 29 with a ground blessing of MSU’s new American Indian Hall. Hundreds of people turned out to celebrate the upcoming construction, which is slated to begin later this spring or summer for completion in the fall of 2021.
The American Indian Hall, which will cost the university approximately $20 million, has been a long time coming, with ongoing fundraising efforts over the course of about 13 years. As reported by the MSU News Service, the hall will allow for an expansion in the American Indian program as the department moves from a 1,100-square-foot room in the basement of Wilson Hall, to an entire building complete with classrooms, offices, an auditorium and a room that can be used for ceremonies and as a dance studio.