Social Issues

A place for art in halting violence toward Indigenous people

Students, teachers and community members in Black River Falls are contributing to an art installation named Heart Spirits to build awareness about the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women.

PBS News Hour

May 5, 2023 • West Central Region

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PBS Newshour

By Kat Klopp, Jackson Tiedens, Peyton Heath, Julie Tiedens and Briget Ganske, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs

“Not only am I an indigenous woman, I have friends and family that are indigenous women,” said Hannah Falcon, a student in Black River Falls. “It’s this epidemic of violence towards them. I don’t want that for them. So, this helps spread awareness and helps people take action for what’s going on.”

It’s estimated that there are 4,200 unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous people in the United States. Now, an art project in Wisconsin is bringing light to their stories.

“The community here is more diverse than most and we have a huge Native American population,” said Andrea McCaskey, a Hoocąk language teacher in Black River Falls. “We need to share the stories of those that we’ve lost in hopes to prevent it happening from other people.”

Canadian artist Cheryl Ring developed the Heart Spirits project. The original art exhibit was displayed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2022, and used 1,200 clay hearts handmade by community members in a workshop setting. Each heart represented a missing and murdered Indigenous woman or girl.

“It started as a seed, as an idea in my head,” Ring said. “I felt frustrated with the national inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. There were relatives and families who needed to speak their truth, and it served that purpose.”

At Black River Falls High School, teachers, students and community members formed a committee to spread awareness of the Heart Spirits project and extend it into their own community.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers attended one of the workshops. The event highlighted one of his budget priorities — addressing violence against Indigenous people.

“It’s really important. We have a task force on Indigenous women and girls,” Evers said. “One of their recommendations has been to create a special office in the state government. It’s something that is really important to me personally. I’ve been a very active participant working with the 11 tribal nations in the state of Wisconsin. I believe in their sovereignty. And I believe that we have to do more to make sure that those tribal nations thrive. As far as women and girls that have been missing or have been murdered, I just think it’s important for the state to take a stand on this.”

McCaskey emphasized that this project and the attention it draws is just the beginning.

“We have a lot more work as a committee,” McCaskey said. “I think that we have some work to do in educating staff here at the school, but also community members about how we can prevent human trafficking dealing with our indigenous population.”

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