IGNACIO – Justa Whitt entered the gymnasium at Ignacio High School to take an extraordinary team photo back in December. What she saw sent chills down her spine.
Each coach and player on the girls varsity basketball team had a red or black handprint painted over their mouths that extended to their cheekbones. They lined up in their uniforms with a basketball in hand, put on a stoic expression and posed.
The reason behind the photograph was to show solidarity for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, which marked the beginning of a season-long effort for the Bobcats. Whitt, Ignacio’s head coach, said 80% of the players on the team are Southern Ute tribal members, or of tribal descent, and she believes Saturday will help shed more light upon the issue.
Ignacio (7-5, 5-0 2A/1A San Juan Basin League) will host Nucla (3-10, 2-3 SJBL) at 2 p.m. Saturday at the SunUte Community Center in a game to honor the women that have gone missing or murdered. There will be pregame festivities before tipoff, including a drum circle, an opening prayer and a speech by Southern Ute tribal Chairwoman Christine Sage. Fans are encouraged to wear red.
The red handprint, which has been used by Native American athletes from the Pacific Northwest to the Dakotas, is multi-faceted. In Native American culture, red is the only color that spirits can see. By painting it over their mouths, it gives a voice to those who are gone, as well as to the athletes.
Proceeds from Saturday’s ticket sales and concessions will go to Voices of Our Sisters, a grassroots organization that is bringing awareness and education through artistic movement. Whitt, who is part of the organization, said she wanted to bring an uncomfortable conversation to the forefront.
“We want to have the continued exposure with our girls, playing through the end of season,” Whitt said. “Maybe we can carry this with us as we go deep into the season to help bring awareness to the entire state, not just our little corner. That’s the main thing, to make sure that all of these young girls are aware that this stuff is going on, and not to be blind to the fact that this is a real problem. They need to be aware of their surroundings, who they are with and who they may put themselves in company with, whether that may be good or bad.”
According to a November 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, 5,712 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls were reported in 2016, but only 116 were entered into the U.S. Department of Justice database. Colorado did not provide statistics, but the Southwest had the highest number of reported cases with 157. With 78 cases, New Mexico had the most cases of missing and murdered women, while Arizona was third with 54. Albuquerque was the second-largest urban area in the data that featured 18 cases. Gallup, New Mexico, had the highest number of cases that were not on law enforcement record with 20, while Farmington had nine.
The crisis has personally impacted the team. Senior captain Makayla Howell had an aunt that was murdered when she was little. The case was never solved. Senior Helaina Taylor had an aunt go missing in Oklahoma. Whitt also is a domestic violence survivor. She suffered from verbal abuse many years ago. With tragedy striking so close to home, Howell said joining the movement now was more important than ever, and she hopes the game will spark the Southern Ute Tribe to take a more active role in the issue.
“To me, it means a lot because we all grew up on the rez,” Howell said. “Not all of us are Native, of course, but it’s a really big cause to us because you see women getting taken everyday and going missing. You see these cases not being closed because we can’t figure out what’s going on, and that just makes it 10 times harder. ... It’s one of those things where it’s so close to home that you don’t think it’s going to happen to you until it does.”
Whitt said she approached school officials at the beginning of the season about the idea and received support. Her task then was finding the right outlet to connect with the entire student body.
“There were a few kids that kind of had some objections when they first saw pictures of this floating around, and I think it was lack of understanding of what we are trying to do,” Whitt said. “We’re not trying to promote a picture on a wall here. We’re promoting what the real problem is and that’s the missing and murdered women. That’s where the handprint comes into play, and even though not every person on the team is of tribal descent, they are still part of the team and are still part of the support that we are giving to this.”
In preparation for Saturday’s game, the team put up a collage at the beginning of the year across from the entrance to the gym with articles, statistics and a sign that read: “NO MORE STOLEN SISTERS.” They also decorated the Community Center on Wednesday and put up posters of women who are still missing.
Sophomore guard Monika Lucero said the phrase has stuck with her. She said it rings true for all women, not just Native Americans.
“That phrase means that everyone came from the same person,” she said. “We are all sisters and everyone is included, and it means that we don’t want anyone to go missing anymore. We don’t want to be taken, we don’t want to be murdered. Nobody wants that to happen. I’m hoping that people will start recognizing that we are putting it out there and that it will help us and our community show that we are aware and we are here to help if anything happens, especially if a family member goes missing. There are people that you can contact and talk about it.”
Daisy Bluestar, founder of Voices of Our Sisters, said the game is one of the cornerstone events of the year for the organization and will provide a platform for other events supporting the movement. She said getting the word around the community has sparked other activists to play a larger role moving forward.
“I think we opened a whole new door that even we didn’t expect,” Bluestar said. “The artistic part of the movement paved ways for other ideas. We have formed partnerships in Towaoc, Durango, and are looking to keep the message moving forward. It’s a work in progress, but we’ve began to make a powerful statement, and I would want our follow-through after Saturday to be just as effective.”
The group plans a children’s pow-wow in April to bring awareness to the issue. It will all lead up to May 5, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native American Women.