Bead Portrait Raises Awareness of Violence Against Indigenous Women


April 12, 2018

Photo: Community bead-making workshop for the portrait project. Luger’s Instagram.

Communities across the US are hand-rolling beads and sending them to Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. He will assemble these beads into a large scale portrait, titled ‘Every One’. This portrait project aims to raise awareness of the disproportionately high violence against indigenous women, girls, and LGTBQ community. Luger was born on the Standing Rock reservation, and his work focuses on critical analysis of culture to inspire diverse communities to “engage with Indigenous peoples and values apart from the lens of colonial social structuring.” The artist explores this topic through the mediums of ceramics, fiber, steel, video and sound, and social collaboration. Among his notable works are the Mirror Shields used in the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which also invited the public to participate in the project by creating their own mirror shields.

After a Canadian minister suggested that around 4,000 women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada alone, an estimate more than 3 times that of the police, Luger latched onto that number. The portrait will be made out of 4,000 beads, each one meant to represent a victim.

These 4,000 cases are part of a greater pattern of violence towards indigenous women. A study from 2016 showed that greater than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and the results showed that over 730,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced violence in that year. Still other activists, those working for the ‘Walk 4 Justice’ initiative, collected the names of indigenous women who are missing or murdered but stopped once they reached 4,232 in 2011. All too often, authorities award little attention and effort into investigating the crimes.

Luger’s project began as an individual undertaking but soon developed into an opportunity for social engagement. To make it more accessible for communities and non-artists in other parts of the country, he simplified the bead-making process, and in December uploaded a tutorial video. In more than twenty communities ranging from California, to Oklahoma, to New York, groups rolled two-inch beads for his project. Luger, in an Instagram post, celebrated that he had received 3,921 beads for his project, proving this involvement is more than just ‘clicktivism,’ and provides real tangible action to support the cause.

Luger is not alone in his call to attention and action on this issue. Women in Washington state have lobbied politicians to introduce bills to address missing indigenous women. To get a grasp on the scale of the problem, the first step these advocates urged for is a full investigation into precisely how many women are missing or murdered. Numbers are hazy since there is a pattern of police either ignoring reports or filing them as accidental deaths. Next, they suggest that policy for law enforcement should be addressed, with the hope of creating requirements of full reports and investigations into the murders, disappearances, and violence against indigenous women.

The portrait will come together during this month. The inspiration for the portrait is a photograph by queer indigenous Canadian photographer Kali Spitzer, depicting an unnamed woman whose own sister is one of the over 4,000 missing or murdered indigenous women. The portrait will premiere at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art at the end of April, and then tour the US. Luger’s project, he says, humanizes numbers and policy. “The data is numbers, but the numbers represent lives. These are human lives.” The bead-making workshops reached wider audiences, bringing in non-indigenous community members, an example of how art is used to draw attention to the issues of marginalized communities, and lift up their voices in memory of loved ones and in protest of a society that allows this to fall by the wayside. The portrait will continue, as it travels the country, to tell the story of many through the story of one.