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A short distance from Montana State University Billings' powwow, ribbon skirts tell a story of loss
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A short distance from Montana State University Billings' powwow, ribbon skirts tell a story of loss

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To find Marita Growing Thunder at the 50th Annual MSUB Powwow, follow the blue and yellow paper footprints taped to the tile floor.

MSUB Powwow

A dancer walks along the steps that lead to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women display at the MSUB Powwow on April 6, 2018.

Past the Alterowitz Gymnasium doors, through which 3,000 people will pass through by the end of the weekend, and adjacent to the black-curtained changing stations where babies cry in the hands of their mothers and fathers, the 19-year-old stands in a room full of ribbon skirts.

There, the sounds of the powwow are faint, and the colored clothing is bright against the white walls.

MSUB Powwow

Marita Growing Thunder stands in front of her dress display at the MSUB Powwow on April 6, 2018. Growing Thunder chose to display her dresses in a smaller room away from the powwow to separate the heaviness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement from the celebration the powwow brings.

Starting when she was 17, Growing Thunder began sewing ribbon skirts and dresses and dedicating each one to the memory and name of a missing or murdered indigenous woman.

Displayed this weekend are close to 20 dresses on coat hangers, clotheslines, mannequins and tables. Computers, chairs and tables were cleared out of the room before the powwow began. On the wall near the door hangs a dress cut to the size of a small girl. 

MSUB Powwow

Dresses each representing a missing and murdered indigenous woman hang at a display during the MSUB Powwow on April 6, 2018. Marita Growing Thunder has created close to 200 dresses to bring awareness to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.

The quiet space away from the happiness and celebration in the gym is what she wanted for her first time ever displaying the clothing at a powwow. Organizers had originally suggested the clothing be displayed in the gym where dancing is scheduled to take place.

"I didn't want to bring death onto a celebration dance floor," she said. "It was just out of respect for these women and the people putting on this powwow."

Before she began sewing the skirts, Growing Thunder participated in a monthlong art program at Wesleyan University that encouraged artists to create projects specific to their communities.

For a time at Polson High School, Growing Thunder sewed a new dress every night to wear to school the next day. Her first sewing machine began to sputter after about six months. Each piece of clothing took close to eight hours to complete when she began.

A first-year art student at the University of Montana and an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Tribes, Growing Thunder said she's made more than 200 pieces of clothing, each one crafted and dedicated with permission from loved ones of the women and girls.

The conversations don't get easier, she said. But to hear Growing Thunder describe the problem plaguing indigenous women, she doesn't view silence as a choice.

The questions come often: Why are you doing this? Why are you putting yourself out there like this?

"Well, nobody else is going to," Growing Thunder said.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study examining racial and ethnic differences in homicides of adult women in the United States from 2003 to 2014 found that non-Hispanic black and American Indian/Alaskan Native women experienced the highest rates of homicide in the entire country.

"The saddest thing is I haven't met a family that this hasn't affected," Growing Thunder said.  

There is no federal database recording missing and murdered indigenous women in the United States. 

Recently, Growing Thunder finished an 80-mile walk across the Flathead Indian Reservation for the same cause.

"Missing and murdered indigenous women is beyond a trend and beyond a hashtag," Growing Thunder said. "It's a day-to-day-life issue in Native families, and it could happen to anybody." 

MSUB Powwow

Sisters Azalea, left, and Tara Stands walk into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women dress display at the MSUB Powwow on April 6, 2018.The sisters admired the dresses Marita Growing Thunder created to bring awareness of the high number of Native American women missing and murdered.

The ribbons adorning many of the dresses and skirts are often cut from bridal satin. Fabric donations have come to Growing Thunder from places like South America and even Sudan. She keeps sewing and wearing the clothing and every time someone asks her about her clothing or if her skirt means there's a powwow, she explains what is happening to women in her community and beyond. 

"The project's not about me at all," she said. "I will stand up for my sisters..." 

Gesturing at the dress on the wall behind her, Growing Thunder finishes her statement. 

"I will stand up for these sisters." 

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