Portraits preserve memories of missing, murdered indigenous women
Amber Webb looks at the white kuspuk that stands 20 feet tall and is 8 feet wide while serving as a back drop in a room used by the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs.
Her eyes start to well with tears before she quickly composes herself, then she smiles widely and says, “I’m ready.”
She begins discussing a project designed to ensure the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous North American women aren’t forgotten.
The kuspuk features portraits of these women from Alaska, Canada and northern border Lower 48 states — 90 of them, so far.
Webb, a 34-year-old Yupi’k artist, sketched each with black ink, allowing the white fabric to bring out singular features of each woman: a smile barely revealing a set of perfect teeth; hair strands emerging from beneath a baseball cap draped over her eyes; drawn cheeks partially covered by long, flowing hair.
Each portrait takes two to six hours to draw and is part of a project Webb says she hopes can feature 300 women and girls before it's complete.
“One of the things that I had considered early on in this project is that I wanted the portraits to speak for themselves about who these women were and not how their lives may have ended or what was taken from them because that’s not who they are," she said.
Webb arrived to Juneau this week in time for a hearing on a House resolution by Tribal Affairs Committee Chair Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel.
House Resolution 10 urges Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 without an exemption for tribal governments while highlighting a crisis of missing, murdered and missing women.
According to an Urban Indian Health Institute report, released late last year, more than 5,700 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women were reported in 2016. Of those, 116 got entered into a Justice Department database.
Webb displayed her project several days before Sunday’s National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. She testified at Thursday’s hearing; while addressing panel members, she never lost sight of the faces behind them.
Zulkosky says she found Webb’s kuspuk empowering.
“I believe it’s really powerful to illustrate and humanize an issue that can feel really abstract when you’re talking about women as being invisible in media, or as being invisible in data or as being invisible in law enforcement records,” she said. “To be able to see that these are real women, these are real Alaskans, is something that’s really moving in and of itself, and to be able to provide a platform where art work can really help resonate an issue of such significant public policy impact is really exciting.”
Zulkosky and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, established the Tribal Affairs Committee this year and quickly began holding hearings each Tuesday and Thursday.
It has seven members and may be among the more geographically, as well as politically diverse, committees in the Legislature, touching on most of the coastal regions, the interior and the state’s South Central region.
It features Republicans Dave Talerico (Healy), Sarah Vance (Homer), Chuck Kopp (Anchorage), independents Edgmon (Dillingham) and Dan Ortiz (Ketchikan) and Democrats Zulkosky (Bethel) and John Lincoln (Kotzebue).
Among those, there are of Alaska Native descent: Zulkosky (Yupi’k) Edgmon (Aleut) and Lincoln (Inupiaq).
Richard Peterson, president for the Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said the committee’s diversity is one of its strengths. He attended some of the earlier hearings since the committee was formed Feb. 25.
“I think it’s helping us dispel some of the myths about tribes; it’s helping educate some of the committee members on the impact that tribes have for Alaska,” he said. “For us to be the most effective to help educate the state we need to get the questions framed for people who don’t really understand tribal government and relations to the state of Alaska.”
That education included Webb’s project that hung in the committee room until Friday. That afternoon, Zulkosky invited her colleagues to meet Amber and learn about her project.
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, was among the guests. He called the kuspuk a stunning piece of work and a solemn reminder to keep lawmakers focused on the work left to be done.
“I know that has to pull a lot from the heart and the soul to put each one of those faces on there," he said. "It’s sad that we have to remind ourselves that Alaskan Native women are murdered at these unacceptable rates. It’s a travesty for all Alaskans, including indigenous women from the Lower 48."
One of those faces belongs to Valerie Sifsof, Webb’s friend who went missing seven years ago in Anchorage and still hasn’t been found.
Sifsof’s 2012 disappearance inspired a similar project last year, but Webb also placed her friend’s portrait on the hood of the larger kuspuk, a product of a Rasmuson Foundation grant.
"I think the biggest thing I would like people to take away from the project is that when you see these cases in the media or when you hear about Native women being treated violently, don’t look away from it and don’t look put it back on the women, because we are not doing these things to ourselves," she said.
Correction: This story has been edited to list the correct the House resolution as HR 10.
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