Underscore News / Report for America

Content warning: Domestic violence, murder, missing people.

Three years ago on May 5th 2020, multimedia Indigenous artist, Nayana LaFond painted a portrait of an Indigenous woman from Canada as an emotional outlet for processing her own trauma, and posted it to a facebook page. Her inbox was flooded with family members and friends who had loved ones go missing or murdered and wanted LaFond to share their loved ones' story too.

As a way to honor, remember, and bring healing to Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, LaFond created, “Portraits in Red: Missing & Murdered Indigenous Peoples,” a traveling exhibit that is currently on display at Yakima Valley Museum through mid January, before continuing on its Pacific Northwest tour.

Today, the project has grown to more than 110 portraits of Indigenous women, men and Two Spirit individuals who have gone missing, been murdered, victims of violence. The show also includes portraits of activists working to raise awareness to the issue.

Linda is a survivor.(Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

“I wanted some sort of empowerment sensation as well,” LaFond, a citizen of the Métis Nation in Ontario and Anishinaabe, Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, as well as German and French descent, said. “I wanted some activists in there to say, ‘Look, we are standing up. We're fighting back. We're advocating. Here's the people who are really making changes.’”

There are 39 portraits currently on display at Yakima Valley Museum, including those of people from the area that are actively missing or were murdered.

The color and symbolisms used in the paintings are intentional. According to LaFond, many Indigenous cultures believe red is the only color spirits can see.

“I paint them the way that a spirit would see them so that the spirits of those who have passed on can come home,” she said. “Also, it's about the blood of our people. Some tribes would put the red hand over their mouth when they were going to war.”

A content advisory statement and explanation of the symbolism of the red hand print appears at the entrance of the exhibit. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

‘Healing my own wounds’

The red symbolism can be seen throughout the entire exhibit. Walking past beautifully lit Christmas trees, a red painted archway has LaFond’s artist statement in addition to a content warning, letting visitors know that what they are about to witness may be triggering.

At the end of the exhibit, a white tapestry with red ribbons holds messages from people who have visited. A side table with tissues, ribbon and folders with more information of specific cases sits under two portraits.

As a domestic violence survivor herself, LaFond’s goal of the exhibit is to bring awareness and healing to those impacted by the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples epidemic.

“It became really about healing my own wounds, and my matrilineal line’s wounds and then being of some sort of service to the community,” LaFond said.

Like LaFond, her mother and grandmother are also survivors of domestic violence.

“When I look at my matrilineal line, it's one survivor after another after another,” LaFond said.

Indigenous crime victims make up 5 percent of Washington’s unresolved cases despite making up less than 2 percent of the state’s population, according to a press release from the state attorney general.

“Washington is the second highest for missing and murdered Indigenous people,” said Larissa Knopf, Director of Development at Yakima Valley Museum. “Those stats don't mean a whole lot, but when you're reading their stories, it means a lot more.”

Knopf says the museum is honored to host the exhibit to help educate and inform the people of Yakima at how close to home this issue is.

Josey Tewa, Hopi, is an outspoken activist, organizer and warrior in the Missing and murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit People (MMIWG2sT) crisis. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

‘More than just a victim’

The MMIP epidemic was something Jonathan Heath Lambe, curator of exhibits at Yakima Valley Museum, admits he didn’t know much about until the exhibit came to his doorstep.

“And I'm glad that it did because it's enlightened me, and in some small way I've been able to help enlighten others by putting it up in the museum,” he said.

Lambe believes it makes sense to give “Portraits in RED: Missing & Murdered Indigenous Peoples” prominence at the museum, especially with how closely this issue hits home for people living in the Yakima valley.

“People can see who these people are,” Knopf said. “They're more than just a victim. They're more than just a statistic. They have a story.”

Joanne, Dakota Sioux, was found murdered in her home on October 19, 1976. Her six month old son was left for dead when he was discovered beside her deceased body. Her son survived. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

In 2020, American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) experienced the second highest rate of homicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

As of December 04, 2023 there are currently 129 Indigenous people listed as missing in Washington, 34 of those are from Yakima county.

One of the portraits is of 17 year-old Esmeralda “Kit” Mora, a non-binary teen who was living in Omak, Wash. when they went missing two years ago. The date of Kit’s disappearance is officially listed as April 2022, but Kit’s family and friends say that isn’t necessarily true, because they have not seen or heard from them since November 2021.

Across the wall is a portrait of a 18-year-old Lucy wearing her fancy dance regalia. Lucy is an Afro-Indigenous citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon. Her plaque says she is an advocate and youth leader.

Next to each portrait is a plaque with details about their individual stories. The text ranges from a few words to a full story. This was intentional, Lambe says.

“Hopefully when people experience the exhibit, it brings enough awareness to the issue that they walk away from the exhibit, wanting more information, and looking for how they can help,” Lambe said.

Lucy, 18, Afro-Indigenous citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, is an advocate and youth leader in her community. LaFond painted this portrait of her by Siletz photographer, Eleeziaa Howard.(Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

‘She's now home'

The aligned goals that Lambe and LaFond shared for the exhibit to bring awareness and healing have culminated into tangible impact. About a month ago, LaFond got a Facebook message from one of the missing people she had painted letting her know that the missing person had returned home safely.

“Her mother said that it was at least in part because of all of these shows, articles that had her painting,” LaFond said. “People came forward, volunteered their services with the family and were able to find her so she's now home. That really made a big impact on me personally.”

LaFond asked that she remain unnamed to protect her anonymity.

The exhibit is open to the public through Jan. 13, 2023 before it travels to the Tamastslikt Cultural Center on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon and will be on display from Feb. 03 - May 06, 2024.

In 2021, Anthony Tolentino, Siletz Indian tribal citizen, was killed in Salem, Ore. He was 17 years old. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Lead image: Thirty-nine portraits from Nayana LaFond’s project Portraits in Red adorn the walls of the Yakima Valley Museum in Yakima, Wash. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....