A red handprint across the mouth has become a symbolic representation of violence that affects Indigenous women across Canada, the United States and beyond.
But while the image is supposed to spread awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), some worry it’s at risk of being exploited in its usage as well.
“It’s really hard because people like to use us,” said 22-year-old Michelle Chubb.
Chubb lives in Winnipeg and her parents are from Pimicikamak and Bunibonibee Cree Nations.
On TikTok, a social media application where users can share short video clips, videos hashtagged with MMIW and MMIWG have views in the millions. Many of these show users with a hand over their mouth that is torn away to leave behind a red handprint.
Chubb posted her own TikTok video of herself saying, “I may not be TikTok famous but I’m not going to post a video of me covering my mouth with red paint or ketchup.”
It’s not that she doesn’t think the image should be used on social media, she said it depends on the context and how it’s being represented.
“If you do the right research and talk about it in the right way, then it’s good,” said Chubb.
“But if you’re mocking or giving misleading information then that’s where you cross the line.”
‘A double-edged sword’
Last April, Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel ran the Boston Marathon with MMIW written across her legs, and a red handprint on her face.
“I wanted to do something with my run … to give back to our stolen relatives and to their families,” she said.
Daniel is a citizen of the Kul Wicasa Oyate (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) in South Dakota and works as an outreach and project manager at UCLA. She is a documentary film producer and a sponsored runner athlete for Lululemon’s global ambassador program.
While running the Boston Marathon, she dedicated every mile in prayer for an Indigenous woman or girl who had been murdered.
“It just was in those moments that I realized that this is something that could be recognized and hopefully means something to Indigenous people, to Indian Country, and hopefully to the families or those that do this work,” she said.
She said she has noticed an increasing number of people using the handprint, and she said that’s a “double-edged sword.”
“It shows unity and it shows solidarity and the support that is there, and I love that it’s growing,” she said.
“But, I also do know from other Native people that have reached out to me that they were concerned about the use of the paint because in some tribes and some cultures the use of paint, war paint, has different meaning and context but also I have seen it be exploited.”
She said there have been instances where people are putting a red handprint on themselves and taking selfies in a mirror or bringing the handprints to inappropriate places where drugs and alcohol are being used.
“I’m definitely protective of how the handprint is being used or how it’s being talked about and making sure that it’s not being exploited,” said Daniel.
‘A way of healing’
For Michelle Buckley of Hay River, N.W.T., the red handprint represents violence and silence.
In June last year she did a photoshoot with fellow Hay River resident and photographer, Aaron Tambour.
The photo series features Buckley in a red dress looking out over nearby Alexandra Falls and walking away from the camera down a highway.
One striking photo focuses on her face, which is marked with a red handprint across her mouth.
The purpose of the photoshoot, Buckley said, was to raise awareness that MMIWG is an issue Indigenous people face, but it also was a form of healing.
When she was six, her 14-year-old sister Rea was found dead.
“I remember her being very protective and very loving,” she said. “She was very kind-hearted.”
She said about the photoshoot, “It was kind of a way of healing by letting it out but also raising awareness to this current issue.”
The red handprint image has been spread across social media, which is where Buckley initially saw it.
Regarding the usage of it, she said she doesn’t think it should be used only by survivors and family members who have lost their loved ones.
“I feel like if they know what they’re doing it for, to represent violence against women and girls, that’s OK, if they’re being genuine about it.”