While public safety officials, U.S. attorneys and state lawmakers spoke with urgency about rural public safety and stemming violence against Indigenous women, one quiet scene underscored the highly charged talks at the Alaska Federation of Native convention.

It’s a 15-foot-tall, 9-foot-wide kuspuk featuring 150 portraits of murdered and missing Indigenous women, each hand drawn by Amber Webb, a 34-year-old Yup'ik artist.

The kuspuk hung behind seated panelists addressing public safety concerns as a stark reminder of problems Indigenous women face.

“I’m mostly happy that I’m not on it, but I could have been,”  said panelist Anna Sattler David, a rape survivor whose story became known when her cold case rape kit produced a suspect.

The artists sketched each image with black ink, allowing the white fabric to bring out singular features of each woman: dark sunglasses crowed by bangs; penetrating eyes; hair strands emerging from beneath a baseball cap slightly 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 could feature 300 women and girls before it's complete. For now, she has about 150 drawn.

“I think it’s really a reminder that we don’t always know the full extent of the problem,” Webb said. “It brings it home that there’s no way to really fully understand how high a risk it is for Native women. [...] When I made the project, the whole point of making it was to highlight and elevate these women that are not able to speak for themselves any longer. The kuspuk was a vehicle for their stories.” 

House Rep. Chuck Kopp and Sen. Donny Olson served on one of those panel speaking to the recent emergency declaration issued by U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

“Every face up there represents a network of family and loved ones that are grieving,” said Kopp, a retired police chief. “It is unbelievable that this has gone unaddressed and unresolved for as long as it has. We're committed to turning that around.”

The kuspuk seemed to stand a little taller Thursday afternoon as word arrived to the Carlson Center that authorities charged Brian Steven Smith with a second murder of an Alaska Native woman.

The news had Webb thinking there is plenty of space for both women on the kuspuk.

“When I see the space up there,” she said, “I know I can fill it and I can fill it easily 100 times — and I still wouldn’t even be scratching the surface.”

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