The stark red tapestry stands out against the backdrop of green that is Boston Common.
"Miskodoodiswan," or "The Red Dress Lodge," is an installation by interdisciplinary artist Lilly E. Manycolors.
The lodge is made up of 13 dresses, created by four local indigenous women. They represent tribes across the nation: Elizabeth Solomon (Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag), Nicole Brathwaite-Hunt (Blackfoot, Tuscarora, Pocasset Wampanoag), Dee Ko (Cherokee/Mohawk/Haliwa Saponi), and Brittney Walley (Nipmuc).
The purpose of the installation is to begin a dialogue around murdered and missing indigenous women, two-spirit people and children. It's meant to provide knowledge and healing. It's also intended to make people uncomfortable. Posted signs remind passersby whose land they stand on.
“This lodge is installed with permission on the lands of the Massachusett Tribe,” the sign states.
And the statistics on the sign force visitors to face harsh truths:
- 4 of 5 indigenous womxn are affected by violence
- Indigenous womxn face murder rates 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice
- Indigenous womxn face sexual assault rates 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice
- Homicide is the third leading cause of death among indigenous womxn ages 10-24 years old
Manycolors said she wanted the lodge to appear gently among the metal buildings that surround it, a way of reclaiming this place from settlers. The lodge is empty, aside from tobacco and woven strands of ribbon that represent prayers.
“Underneath the dresses is a layer of red fabric,” Manycolors said. “And I just kept stopping and saying, ‘Oh my God. When was the last time a lodge was on this land? Like four hundred years ago.’ And that epiphany just kept hitting me over and over all day on installation day.”
The dresses are covered in intricate symbols, braids that represent hair, hands reaching out, paw prints and turtles. The imagery comes from the tradition of each of the women who contributed. The dresses shed light on the grief, the loss, and reality of violence that exists on reservations and in cities such as Boston, a place Manycolors calls "one of the founding places for these colonial systems of femicide."
Though Manycolors had to receive proper permitting and go through the Boston Art Commission to display her work on the Common, she reached out to the Massachusett Tribe out of respect. She her main priority was to get permission from the original inhabitants of the land according to indigenous protocol. They said yes.
"As an indigenous guest on these lands, my intention is to support the local tribes being restored to their rightful place in the cultural fabric of New England," she said.
Manycolors set up the lodge on July 5, a day after Independence Day. The idea had been two years in the making, and was funded with a $26,500 grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts. Manycolors said she was homeless just before she received this grant. Her heritage is Choctaw, African-American, and Australian.
In her words, she houses both the colonized and the colonizer and she has a responsibility to reconcile these two parts of herself. As a result, her body of work braids together the indigenous and non-indigenous and attempts to speak to issues of genocide and erasure of indigenous peoples and culture.
These realities hit home for Manycolors, who said that her childhood was traumatic. She attended dozens of schools and had many homes before dropping out and living on the street. She has experienced multiple attempted kidnappings and sexual assault.
“I'm a survivor of lifelong sexual trauma and I went through case files, you know, for the research part of this,” Manycolors said. “I experienced survivor's guilt for the first time in a very clear way. So when I finally installed this piece, I think I'm just in shock. I'm also grieving a lot. There was no excitement. There's just like this grief."
It has been cathartic for Manycolors to see all the beautiful ways that people are connecting with her work as they send her pictures on social media and place flowers and offerings around the lodge. It makes her feel less alone.
“I wanted the space to be educational so people could connect to their own experiences and then connect to others,” Manycolors said. “I think when you're able to connect to yourself, the knowledge and the experience can really settle in.”
Manycolors has lived multiple lives. Part of her is still in awe of having a home, of providing a good life for her daughter, of feeling safe for the first time in years. There was a time in her life that she pushed for death. She used art to unpack her darkest experiences and to find deep healing by connecting with the different identities that define her. She calls herself the antithesis of colonialism.
“I have my own apartment and I'm going to grad school,” Manycolors said. “My kid has a great life and I'm a working artist. That just happened. I'm still kind of shaking off the feeling that I have to fight to feed my daughter, that I have to fight to put a roof over our heads.”
To be the first in her family to graduate, to be the first to begin to free herself, she calls a gift to her ancestors. She found her medicine through her art.