RedDress, Poetry, and the Fight Against Settler-Colonialism’s Dystopia

Jayde #indigenous #anti-colonialism

Marta Lu Clifford is an enrolled member and tribal elder of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In addition, Clifford is a highly respected tribal elder within the Kalapuya and UO Indigenous communities. Over the past couple of years, Marta has joined together with Lane Community College Longhouse Director Lori Tapenhanso of Navajo Nation and UO Department of Theatre Arts Professor Theresa May to establish the Illioo Native theater group. The Illioo Native theater group tells traditional Indigenous stories through the art of theater. The group,with help from the NAIS ARC and other community folks, is hosting the upcoming MMIWG2S event on May 4.

I was able to sit down with Clifford and Dr. May to ask about the upcoming Missing and murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People) (MMIWG2S) RedDress Poetry in the Park event that the Illioo theater group is hosting on May 4th, and what they have seen over the years done in the community in regards to MMIWG2S.

The inspiration for the event struck Clifford in an afternoon walk with Dr. May in Alton Baker Park. As she walked, she envisioned red dresses hanging from the trees, a vision that spoke to the many Indigenous souls lost to kidnapping and violence, and as a form of connection to those souls. She also wanted to start it to create a community voice to advocate for MMIWG2S, “The inspiration for the RedDress Poetry in the Parkis just wanting to give a voice and a presence to the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Lane County because there has been nothing done here, and I just felt like we need to be more vocal, and visible in Lane County with MMIWG2S.”

Dr. May agreed with that point“As a non-native person I think it’s super important for non-native people to be aware of the epidemic of violence against indigenous people—it’s an epidemic that is rooted in the ongoing genocide of settler colonialism, but it is one that is particular to the lived experience of Indigenous women.”

This epidemic has been born from a legacy of colonial violence and theft. Within the core of the settler-colonial empire that we live in, Indigenous people in the settler imagination are seen as a hindrance in the way of the settler-colonial project. European colonizers have always seen a need for exploitation and commodification of the land, and settler-colonialism is the ultimate manifestation of euro-colonization, the creation of a nation-state with the purpose of commodifying and extracting resources from the land. This ideology conflicts with Indigenous peoples who have lived on the land for millennia. In turn, this leads to the imaginary logic of the settlers that Indigenous populations need to be eliminated and replaced by white settlers. The settler-state aims to accomplish this by any means necessary, whether it be mass killings, bio-cultural assimilation, and or forced removal–all of which have historical precedents.

Particularly, Indigenous women within the settler-state have suffered at the hands of settler mobs and chauvinists ever since the invasion began. This invasion has not just been stealing Indigenous land but invading Indigenous lives and souls as well–stealing generations of life. MMIWG2S has been a pervasive issue ever since the invasion’s earliest days, with the tragedy of Matoaka’s kidnapping by Samuel Argall being one of the first recorded incidents in 1613. This issue has long persisted within the settler-colonial state and today is an issue that contemporary media tends to conveniently ignore. Even so, it is one of the most pressing and alarming issues facing Indigenous women and communities all across Turtle Island today.

What can be done by the UO and the greater Lane community? Dr. May shared a way that the Illioo theater groups pays homage and how others could follow, “I’d personally like to see a public installation at the park or at least here on campus that is a permanent commemoration, permanently calling attention to [MMIWG2S] , and then once a year gets celebrated on MMIWG2S day (May 5th). When we perform with our theater company we always have a chair that is draped in red cloth or garment, and that is also something that all theater groups could do. It could be done when President Schill is giving a speech, there could be a chair with a red cloth or garment.”

The ignorance of the university towards Indigenous issues follows a pervasive trend. For example, Schill was incredibly reluctant to rename University Hall ,previously named Deady Hall, despite the previous name coming from a racist chauvinist and in spite of student protests. Additionally, when a faculty member at the university dressed in blackface, Schill was remarkably slow to respond until nation-wide and student protests finally forced a response.

Settler-colonialism has such pervasive effects, and as Dr. May brilliantly put it in regards to MMIWG2S, “it’s so linked to the violence of settler colonialism which is the ground that this nation-state stands on. It is a type of insidious violence and it does violence to us all, native and non-native alike.” She also turned attention to the fact that Lane County is now recognized by the CDC as a suicide cluster. The CDC defines a suicide cluster as “ a group of suicides or suicide attempts, or both, that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community”(CDC). The county has seen rates of suicide doubling over the past 5 months, with many under 24 (KVAL). This epidemic of suicide has led the CDC to give the univeristy and the county more federal money. However as Dr. May says “It’s fascinating to me, because if that’s a thing, if there’s federal money and the CDC calling the school district because so many students and kids are taking their own life–which is tragic–then the epidemic against native women should be addressed in that way, as they are absolutely interconnected.”

A notable element of this event will be the plentiful red dresses and clothing hanging from trees–the vision Marta had. Tobacco wrapped in red cloth and red ribbons will likely be given to all in attendance. The color red is, as Marta put it “the color that the spirits can see from the other side, so in that way, this is not an event we do for the living, it is an event that is meant to speak across the seeable world into the unseeable world–to cross over”. The motif of red is continued in tobacco wrapped in red cloth, and key-chains created by various folks from the Many Nations Longhouse community. The event will have an opening prayer, drumming and singing. Then poetry will be read around the circle of trees in the center of the park on two separate occasions, and anybody is welcome to share a poem or song. RedDress concludes with a moment for attendees, if they wish, to share the names of the missing and murdered people in their lives, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. This includes people who might be living but mentally lost, such as those fighting the pithole of addiction. The event will end with a healing prayer, because as Marta said “when you say someone’s name you’re putting it out to the universe so that everyone can hold onto it, and maybe give them a prayer for it.”

Anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-fascist mindsets require hope and revolutionary optimism in order to envision a better future, while always acknowledging the material conditions around us that form the settler-state, especially on top of the Kalapuya land in Eugene which we live and breathe on. RedDress is a moment to recognize all the people that settler-colonialism violence has taken from the community, and to connect those lives from the visible world to the non-visible world, as well as to envision a future together free of this epidemic of MMIWG2S and settler-colonial violence. This event will take place on May 4th at Heron Playground in Springfield at 5:00. Everyone, native and non-native alike, is invited and welcomed to this event. So, Come out and get there before 5 to show some solidarity with the Indigenous community of UO/Lane County! Stand together and pay homage to those who we have lost to the parasite of settler-colonialism; and to give acknowledgment to the insidious violence committed against Indigenous women along with the ever-constant assault on Indigenous bodies, minds, and souls by the dystopia of settler-colonialism.