BEMIDJI -- The process of curating an art exhibit about missing and murdered Indigenous women was tinged with difficult memories for Angela Two Stars.

She remembers climbing into the car with her father as a 9-year-old to look for her missing grandmother. Although she was able to grasp some of the reality at that young age, the larger issue that other Native families were experiencing the same thing didn’t occur to her.

“I never really connected my grandma’s death to missing and murdered Indigenous women; it was just my own family’s individual tragedy -- almost like our skeleton in the closet that we don’t talk about,” Two Stars said.

She sees things differently now. And she’s using that personal story to bring light to the larger issue she now recognizes all too well.

Two Stars spoke at the opening reception for the exhibit “Bring Her Home” on Friday, June 22, at the Northwest Indian Community Development Center. The exhibit includes the work of 16 artists who used different mediums to illustrate the topic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. It will remain at the Development Center through July 16.

The exhibit is a continuation from when it was first hosted during the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis as a way to illustrate the high rate of violence against Native American women. A third of Native women report being raped at some point in life, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“This whole process was a very important and powerful thing to do,” said Karen Goulet, co-curator for the project. “We weren’t sure if it was going to travel or go anywhere, and the community who saw it down in Minneapolis said, ‘It needs to travel.’”

On one wall are large photographs of Native women. Paintings hang on another. A basket sits in the far corner, woven with the names of victims and and crime statistics. In the center of the room lies a wax sculpture of a defenseless woman.

‘Strong, resilient, powerful’

Having a personal history with the subject impacted both how Two Stars chose to manage the project and what she wanted viewers to take away from it.

Although the goal was to shed light on the issue, Two Stars wanted to accomplish that without inflicting even more pain on those who could see a reflection of their own stories in the exhibit. That, in turn, affected her instructions for the artists.

“For me to be able to share my story allowed them that safe space to be able to share theirs through their art,” Two Stars said about working with the artists in the exhibit. “I knew right from the beginning -- just because of my family's experience with this -- the need for sensitivity and consideration of the families that have been through this.”

The artwork illuminates the issue in slightly different ways, but they all speak to the same message: “Bring Her Home.”  

Even the name of the exhibit became personal for Two Stars. The man who murdered her grandmother was arrested, but her grandmother’s body was still lost. Two Stars remembers her uncle going to visit the man in jail, asking him to reveal the body’s location so they could find closure.

At the reception, Two Stars said the title of the exhibit has a duality. In one sense, it speaks to the need to bring missing women home safely. In another, it speaks of the need to, like with her grandmother, find closure even if it’s too late to save a life.

In spite of the exhibit’s weight, Two Stars doesn’t want the exhibit to solely pay tribute to the victims. Instead, she also wanted it say something about the women who are bringing the issue to the surface.

“We are strong and resilient and powerful,” Two Stars said. “That’s what I wanted people to know about Indigenous women. Not that we’re missing and murdered Indigenous women, but that, despite that, we’re strong and powerful.”