POLSON – The first name you’re going to read in this story is Lakota Rae Renville.
She was 22 when she was beaten and stabbed to death in 2005 in Independence, Missouri, and her body wrapped in a blanket and tossed in an illegal dump.
Her murder has never been solved.
Eleven years later, and 1,100 miles away, a Polson High School senior spent several hours Monday night sewing a dress in Renville’s honor.
Marita Growing Thunder wore the black dress with colorful ribbons circling it to school on Tuesday.
Growing Thunder never knew Renville, but that’s not the point. She wants you to know that the 22-year-old Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate woman should be more than a statistic.
On Tuesday night, Growing Thunder was designing and sewing another dress, for another missing or murdered Indigenous woman, to wear to school on Wednesday. She’ll do it again Wednesday night for Thursday, and Thursday night for Friday.
Growing Thunder has been doing it every school day since school started.
She’ll do it every day until she graduates.
That’s a lot of dresses – about 170. Each one takes between 90 minutes and six hours a night to make, depending on the design.
Growing Thunder goes to work on the dresses after she finishes her homework and chores after school, sometimes working until 2 a.m. And the sad thing is, when she’s done, she’ll be tens of thousands of dresses short of having honored all the Indigenous woman who have gone missing or have been murdered.
There are 3,000 open cases in Canada alone, and Growing Thunder figures the number is much higher in the United States, where she says a database is still being built, and in Mexico.
“Several more go missing each day,” Growing Thunder says. “I don’t keep track, because they’re more than a number. They were somebody’s grandma, somebody’s little sister. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t cried, thinking about them.”
Growing Thunder attended the Center for Creative Youth at Wesleyan University at Middletown, Connecticut, over the summer, where high school students spend four weeks taking classes in a wide range of artistic disciplines ranging from filmmaking to photography.
Growing Thunder, who plays the trombone, was there for music.
But the center encourages its students to develop an arts advocacy project when they return to their home communities.
Growing Thunder decided to take part in a year-long project called "Save Our Sisters," wherein people use visual and practical arts to spread awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women, by designing and sewing a dress for every day of her senior year.
Other women are making and wearing dresses to advance the cause as well.
She’s been aware of the problem since grade school. In her own family, Growing Thunder says she has lost two aunts to homicide. A great aunt on her father’s side was murdered while hitchhiking, she says, and an aunt on her mother’s side was killed by a husband.
“My sister, Genevieve, is named after her,” Growing Thunder says.
Growing Thunder posts photographs of many of the dresses on a Facebook page called Save Our Sisters: #MMIW Awareness.
Her classmates have said little about the often-colorful dresses she wears each day, along with intricately beaded moccasins and leggings she has also made, and jewelry she has hand-crafted, Growing Thunder says.
“I really don’t think my peers really care,” she says. “The reaction has been pretty neutral – not positive or negative.”
She declines to talk about an exchange others reported on social media, saying, “I feel if I speak about it, it will take away from what I’m trying to do.”
What she does is try to learn as much about each of the missing or murdered women she honors, and incorporate that knowledge into her designs. Sometimes, Growing Thunder says, family members who have heard about the project contact her and ask if she’ll honor their missing or murdered relative with a dress.
“If somebody feels it will help bring them closure, and tells me about a loved one, I do the best I can,” she says. She incorporated fabric with musical notes earlier this month in a dress honoring Tasheena Craft, an 18-year-old Arlee woman who was beaten to death in 2007. Craft was in a drumming group, Growing Thunder explains.
Growing Thunder, 17, is a member of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe. She was born in California, but moved to the Flathead Indian Reservation with her mother, Shannon Ahhaitty, when she was 4.
Her plans after graduation are to attend college and major in pre-med. She has her eye on Carleton College in Minnesota.
But Growing Thunder is clearly more comfortable talking about the project than she is about herself.
“It’s not about me,” she explains. “It’s not about me at all.”