During most of May, dozens of red garments — some trailing adult-sized gowns, some child-sized frilly frocks — swayed from trees all around Ketchikan’s Ward Lake last month. They were a tangible reminder of real lives lost — each one representing Indigenous people who were murdered or are still missing.
It’s a project seen in Canada and the Lower 48, too, to bring awareness to the disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls — and all Indigenous people — who experience violence or go missing.
Most of them disappeared before they were due to be taken down.
“It’s just disrespectful,” Michael Toole, Ketchikan Indian Community’s victim services program coordinator, told KRBD. “It’s a terrible way to discount the reality of the lives of some of these people who were missing relatives who haven’t received justice.”
Toole said he checked on the dresses in mid-May. The tribe held a permit to hang the dresses through the end of the month. That’s according to U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Paul Robbins Jr.
“And there had been some that were, you know, weathered — I mean, the weather, off and on, mixed bag with rain and wind — and some were tattered, but certainly none that I recall being missing,” he said.
There were 60 garments hung as part of the installation. When staff went back to take them down late last month, about 48 of them were gone.
The tribe checked in with Alaska State Troopers and the Forest Service, but they didn’t know what had happened to the dresses. Robbins Jr., the spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told KRBD last week that the organization didn’t take them down.
There was outcry on social media. The tribe’s council issued a statement, condemning what they called “a hurtful and disrespectful act that undermines the efforts to bring understanding and raise awareness about the MMIP epidemic.”
“The theft of the dresses also sends a message that the lives of Indigenous women are not valued,” the statement issued by the tribal council reads. “It is a reminder that Indigenous women are often seen as disposable and that their deaths are not taken seriously.”
“The theft of the dresses is a call to action,” the statement continued. “We need to work together to create a world where Indigenous women are safe and respected.”
They asked anyone with information to contact local law enforcement, but also to contact the tribe and learn more about the epidemic.
Some of the dresses have started to turn up in the past few days. Pictures of wet, crumpled dresses appeared on social media.
“[A] number of these dresses had been collected and discarded off the trail and covered up next to a culvert there,” Toole said.
Gloria Burns is Ketchikan Indian Community’s vice president and the chair of the social services committee.
“They’ve been found in the lake vicinity, just, you know, back, almost like they were stuffed into the drain pipe,” she said.
Burns said the act left her with a deep feeling of sorrow. She said it felt like an “intentional, almost vicious attack.” Burns said that the tribe staff hung the dresses with remembrance and intention, trying to make what she called “a safe space.”
“And so when you’re going through that process of trying to create a safe space, and then it’s intentionally made unsafe, it feels very much like a violation,” Burns said. “I think, you know, the hard part is that missing and murdered Indigenous people, it’s been happening since colonization, we really don’t talk about it. We really haven’t spoke those to the outside community.”
The tribal council encourages all Ketchikan residents to reach out to Ketchikan Indian Community and learn more about the crisis.
Burns also hopes that whoever removed the clothing talks to someone, and tries to understand why they did it.
“I hope for somebody, you know, who had a visceral reaction or didn’t understand or didn’t initially that there could be some dialogue and some conversation and some healing, and a different way of looking at kindness, and, and in taking care of each other in our community,” she said.
KIC president Norm Skan wrote to KRBD, “this vandalism is disheartening but it will never deter us from our goal of finding justice for every murdered and missing indigenous woman.”
A note about the terms used in this story: Michael Toole said there are different terms that may be used for missing or murdered Indigenous community members. KRBD chose to use the term used by KIC staff in their statement.