Imagine, for a moment, a tapestry larger than your own body. It's composed of thousands of fist-sized beads stained in a spectrum of gray and all strung up together like a curtain. When you step in close, the beads appear individual, even singular; the marks of the maker, including fingerprints, dabs, and slight variations in size are evident at this range. When you step further back, the particular merges into a whole and a picture begins to form, each bead reading like a pixel. As your eyes adjust, you're met with a massive black and white portrait.
Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota) describes this vision for a work in progress: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Queer and Trans People BEAD PROJECT (MMIWQT). The subject is a portrait of a woman based on a tintype photograph by First Nations artist, Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena). On her website, Spitzer says that making tintypes—creating a direct positive from a thin metal sheet coated with an emulsion—is a "newfound love" that fits into her broader photographic repertoire (she also works with film, in 35mm, 120 and large format).
The American photographer Edward Curtis took pictures in just this way for his 20-volume photographic compendium, The North American Indian. Taken at the cusp of the 20th century, the photos featured Indigenous peoples as their subjects, though in hindsight their subtext is both the Western gaze and Manifest Destiny.
On the one hand, the bead project speaks to the need for Indigenous self-representation, a clapback to said visual histories. On the other, as the title announces, it speaks to what Indigenous journalist Ruth Hopkins calls an "epidemic of missing and murdered Native women throughout North America" in a recent article for Teen Vogue. In 2013, Canada undertook an initiative to collect data on the marked rise of missing and murdered First Nations women since 1980. Though the estimates range pretty drastically, the numbers are staggeringly high. According to the Native Women's Association of Canada, the number of missing and murdered women from 1980 to 2012 reached 4,000. Tina Fontaine, whose body was found in Winnipeg's Red River in 2014, is the most recent high-profile case. The accused, Raymond Cormier, was found not guilty of second degree murder just days ago.
"How does this problem continue?" asks Hopkins in her piece. "Native lands are a jurisdictional quagmire," in her words; funds are lacking and prosecuting non-tribal offenders on tribal land is prohibited.
To Hanska Luger, "each number in that 4,000 references a life," which, in terms of hard data, "can be hard to conceptualize and put into context." How, he asks, do we begin to "humanize data?" As one response, the ceramic and fiber artist is collaborating on this beaded portrait to "relate to the number by seeing it in scale."
In the US, unlike Canada, there is no extensive ongoing inquiry into the rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women, trans, femme or queer people, though a 2008 study funded by the Department of Justice did point out that in some US counties, "rates of murder against American Indian and Alaska Native women … are over 10 times the national average." And if you overlay sites where violence occurs most, it usually coincides with extractive industries.
Hanska Luger first began making the beads himself. Later, he decided to open source the process by inviting artists and non-artists to participate. Filmmaker Razelle Benally made an instructional video that she and Hanska Luger shared over social media, and the invitation was simple: Cut a 2-inch-square piece of white clay and mold into a round form with a hole at the center.
As was the case with a previous Hanska Luger work that went viral during the Standing Rock protests (the Mirrored Shield Project), this one had legs on the internet and within communities where certain organizations have been hosting their own workshops.
Santa Fe's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture hosted one on Feb. 24, and Tewa Women United hosts another bead-making workshop on Saturday March 3. Located in Española, the nonprofit has focused on "gaining an awareness of Indigenous women, femme people and mother earth," Autumn Dawn Gomez, the organization's youth coordinator for the A'Gin (Tewa for respect) Project, tells SFR. Gomez teaches a "healthy sexuality and body sovereignty" curriculum. Body sovereignty, she describes, "aligns with tribal sovereignty," and the notion that each person is an "autonomous entity" even when a part of a bigger collective. In that lies an emphasis on healthy boundaries, safety, consent, self-love and self-care.
Gomez believes bringing the workshop to Española is a way to educate youth and their families about the subject, underscoring the value of intergenerational relationships. "How powerful is it for a 3-year-old to make a bead?" she asks with a palpable sense of wonder.
For Hanska Luger, it's about "weaponizing privilege," of taking skills and putting them toward new ends, making serious issues tangible, taking collective responsibility for femicide, and fostering communities where art is yet another avenue for those committed to social justice to take action.
MMIWQT Bead Making Workshop
Noon-4 pm Saturday March 3. Free.
Tewa Women United,
912 Fairview Lane, Española,
505-747-3259 ext. 1209