If you see red and black dresses hanging from trees along the 16th Street Mall this week, know that they're not there by accident. Members of the International Indigenous Youth Council and other activist groups say they’re meant to raise awareness of a crisis that has been ignored for too long.
“Missing and murdered indigenous women, migrant women and black women have been exploited just the same as resources and land,” says activist Renee Millard-Chacon. “It’s important to stand up for both. If we’re going to stand up for climate justice, we need to also stand up for those that are invisible to the American identity, essentially.”
The week-long art installation along the mall is a project of the IIYC, climate activist group 350 Colorado and other organizations who have partnered in Colorado Climate Strike Action Week, which began last Friday with a youth-led strike event that drew over 5,000 people to the State Capitol. The installation features red and black dresses that symbolize the hundreds, if not thousands, of indigenous women who have been killed or have gone missing in the U.S. and Canada in recent years.
Amy Gray, a volunteer coordinator for 350 Colorado, says that activists took inspiration from Canadian artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project, which was installed for the first time in the U.S. earlier this year at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Each of the red and black dresses hung on the 16th Street Mall features a tag with the name and age of a murdered or missing person.
Earlier this year, a national inquiry launched by the Canadian government produced an official report that called the country’s epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women “nothing less than [a] deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide.” The root causes of the epidemic are complex, experts say, but particularly in Canada and the western U.S., higher rates of violence against women have been linked to increased oil and gas development in areas where many indigenous people live.
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“Construction of pipelines and other fossil fuel projects often brings an influx of male workers to rural areas near small towns and Reservations, where they live in ‘man camps’ disconnected from the surrounding community,” activists with the Indigenous Environmental Network wrote in 2018. An analysis published earlier this year by the First Peoples Investment Engagement Program at the University of Colorado Boulder found that rates of violent crime rose significantly during the post-2008 oil boom in the Bakken region of North Dakota, where production has occurred in and around the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
“Oil and gas operations, man camps, pipeline installation, fracking sites, all of these things — our women go missing around these sites,” says Gray. “And no one seems to care, but we do. Those are our sisters and our mothers and our grandmothers. We want their names out there.”
Activists said Tuesday that although they had obtained a permit for the installation, the dresses were taken down soon after being put up last week as a result of a “miscommunication.” They’re now being installed along the mall again, and will remain there until Sunday. As a series of planned climate protests continues throughout the week, activists don’t want the dresses or the message behind them to be overlooked.
“Climate justice and social justice are intertwined,” Gray says. “There is no justice unless everyone has justice.”