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Missing, but not forgotten: Fargo library art exhibit tells story of missing indigenous women

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Artist and educator Laura Youngbird
Artist and educator Laura Youngbird glances up from her work drawing on a lithographic stone at Hannaher's Inc. Print Studio at Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D., on Oct. 25, 2018.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

It's a shared grief in Indian Country, women who are missing or have been murdered. 

"Once you start talking about it, it comes up so naturally: 'Yeah, I had a cousin ... or my grandmother ... great-grandmother ... there's somebody.' There's some story in their family background that involves this issue," said Angela Two Stars, curator of the art exhibit "Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island." 

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” exhibit.
A pair of black and white photographs by Kali Spitzer and a screen print on book covers by Keith Secola are among 20 original works on display at the Fargo Public Library.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The show opened earlier this year at All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis. It's now traveling around the region and is on display at the Fargo Public Library. 

Personal experience influenced how Two Stars put the show together. She is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe. And when she was 9 years old, her grandmother was kidnapped and murdered.

"When my grandmother was missing, one the strongest memories I have is [of] my dad pulling the car over and just walking out into the woods," she said, "and I'm sitting there in the car with my mom and siblings watching him slowly disappear into the woods, and being terrified that he was going to come running out because he'd found my grandmother's body."

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” exhibit.
Artist Laura Youngbird sharpens a grease pencil at Hannaher's Inc. Print Studio at Plains Art Museum in Fargo.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Two Stars understood from that experience the challenges of asking artists to produce work about something so personal, that might awaken painful memories. She asked several American Indian artists from across North America to create original pieces for the exhibit.  

One of those artists is Laura Youngbird, a mixed media artist who also directs Native American art programs at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. She is an enrolled member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Four prints Youngbird created are displayed in the busy main entrance to the Fargo Public Library. Each monograph shows images of empty, ghostlike dresses floating on a blue background among bits of sewing patterns. The work is called "More Than a Memory." 

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” exhibit.
A curated exhibit at the Fargo Public Library calls attention to the #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) awareness movement.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

"They were somebody's mother, sister, aunt, grandmother," she said. "So often, nobody cares to really investigate. They just get forgotten."

There's limited information on the number of missing American Indian women because the federal government has never officially collected the data, and most tribes have not had access to the national crime database. 

But studies have found that 4 of every 5 indigenous women experience violence, and more than have half have been victims of sexual assault. 

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” exhibit.
Two works by artist Hillary Kempenich are displayed on the library's second floor.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Youngbird has lived those statistics, she said. She was raped as a young woman and survived an abusive marriage.  

"He told me he only beat me up in when I deserved it. I did get out of that situation, and I also understand how people get in that trap too, in that cycle," she said. "It's touched so many people's lives and, really, it's an epidemic. For some reason, Native women seem more disposable."

Youngbird is hopeful that when the exhibit hangs in very public places, like the downtown Fargo library, it will spark thoughtful conversations.

"Hopefully it brings an awareness, people actually say[ing], 'Yeah, this is a problem. You know, maybe I should pay more attention to it and look out for my neighbors,'" she said, "and to teach your sons to be respectful of women."

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” exhibit.
DVD cases and bookshelves frame Hillary Kempenich's "Dear Savanna," left, and Kayeri Akweks' "Did You Forget?"
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

While "Bring Her Home" memorializes women who have been lost, it is at times defiant and optimistic in the face of the pain.

Hillary Kempenich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, created a piece in memory of Savanna Greywind, a pregnant Fargo woman who was killed and her baby cut from her womb last year.

Another of Kempenich's pieces — "Prayers Up: Tobacco Down" — depicts Native women in dance regalia. It's designed to show the unity and strength of indigenous women in the face of violence. 

There's also a bright, happy painting of a Native woman, by Kayeri Akweks, an enrolled member of the Upper Mohawk First Nation on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. 

There's a label next to the painting: "This is what one healthy, happy, joyful, thoughtful, sweet, and kind, innocent and non sexualized indigenous female looks like, in case you forgot," it says.

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” exhibit.
Artist Kali Spitzer's "Melaw Nakehk'o" is among 20 original works by 12 visual artists on display.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

"Bring Her Home" has been so successful that Angela Two Stars is now in the midst of curating a second show on the same topic, which will open in February at All My Relations Gallery. 

Two Stars hopes this exhibit and the next will help people think of the thousands of missing indigenous women across the country as more than statistics — "think of them not as a victim, but think of who they were, and their roles," she said. "And their families, the people that miss them and love them."

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” exhibit.
Artist Lori Greene's "The Escape," a glass and ceramic mosaic, is among a handful of works displayed on the library's second floor.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

If you go: 'Bring Her Home' and related events

The "Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island" exhibit at the Fargo main library is one of several events scheduled throughout the month of November to mark Native American Heritage Month. More events can be found here.

• Saturday starting at the main library: At 10 a.m., introductions and welcome, followed by a performance by the Buffalo River Singers. At 11 a.m., storyteller Gabe Derosier will perform followed by Native American food tasting and sampling prepared by members of the Daughters of the Earth organization.

• Sunday starting at the main library: At 2 p.m., a screening of the movie "Wind River," followed by a panel discussion with local experts on the topic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW). Some of the artists from the "Bring Her Home" will discuss their art and the exhibit.

• Wednesday at the main library: At 6:30 p.m., a screening of "Reel Injun," a documentary about how Native Americans are portrayed in films. After the screening, artist and filmmaker Falcon Gott will lead a brief discussion.

• Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Plains Art Museum: At 6:30 p.m., an art and poetry workshop with Denise Lajimodiere. Participants will help create a collaborative "dress" and sculptural poem for the 2019 Native American Artist exhibit. Those wanting to participate should pre-register by calling 701-551-6100.

• Friday, Nov. 9 at the Plains Art Museum: At 6:30 p.m., Altered Books Art Project for Veterans with artist and veteran Sgt. First Class Joe Williams, Civil Affairs. All are welcome, particularly veterans and their families. Pre-register by calling 701-551-6100.

• Saturday, Nov. 17 at the Plains Arts Museum: At 11 a.m., the Native American Juried Arts and Crafts Festival.