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Red Dress exhibit aims to start the conversation about missing and murdered indigenous women

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 6:51 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - If you’ve taken a drive down South College Road there’s a good chance you’ve passed the three red dresses on display outside the Wilmington YWCA. The Red Dress exhibit was put up to start a conversation about the disproportionate rate of violence among Native American women.

Several tribes call our region home, and North Carolina has the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi. To date, there are approximately 90 unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and children in North Carolina, dating as far back as the last 25 years.

“Red for us with our tribe symbolizes our connection to the spirit world and to the sky world. The red dresses for missing and murdered sisters — you know, it’s given us our connection to them,” explained Jane Jacobs, a board member on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Coalition of North Carolina. ”Red signifies blood; we are being murdered, we are being killed.”

In the US, Native American women are ten times more likely to be killed. They’re also more likely to experience domestic violence and one in three Native women is sexually assaulted during her life.

According to the Red Dress Exhibit website, there are more than 600 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and experts say the data from North Carolina is extremely limited and the problem is worse than the numbers show.

Some national statistics only include federally recognized tribes. Many investigators either incorrectly identify a victim’s race or ethnicity, or don’t code it at all. Experts also say a lot of cases themselves are not officially classified as homicides by officials.

The leader of the Missing and Murdered Women Coalition of NC has requested countless files from law enforcement agencies for her dissertation on missing and murdered Native women.

“We have noticed that there are a lot of cases that are not correctly identified as murders, like the three cases that are the high profile cases in Robeson County; they’re not being classified as murder victims, so that doesn’t let them get into a couple of databases. They’re not homicide, they’re classified as suspicious deaths,” said the executive director of the Missing and Murdered Women Coalition of NC, Crystal Cavalier.

She says the deaths not being properly classified also does a disservice to mourning families.

“That’s a huge problem here and I am — my sister was murdered in 2018,” said Jacobs.

Katina Locklear was a mother of four and a grandmother. She was beaten, gang raped and killed, her body left on a dirt road in Robeson County.

In the years since Locklear’s death, Jacobs has become an outspoken activist, bringing light to what they call an epidemic of violence.

“My sister, she’s at peace, and her spirit is at peace, but the damage that they leave behind,” said Jacobs. ”We have the red dresses you know; we have our spirit and they know that we’re looking for them, they know that we’re trying to do anything and everything we can to bring this to attention, so it can stop.”

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