As a teen, Bella Cornell used her prom dress for Indigenous activism. Now it's in the Smithsonian.

In 2018, Bella Cornell (Chocktaw) wore a prom dress to bring awareness to missing and murdered indigenous women. Her dress is now on display at Smithsonian National Museum of American History's "Girlhood (It's Complicated)" exhibit. (Photo: Smithsonian Institute)
In 2018, Bella Cornell (Chocktaw) wore a prom dress to bring awareness to missing and murdered indigenous women. Her dress is now on display at Smithsonian National Museum of American History's "Girlhood (It's Complicated)" exhibit. (Photo: Smithsonian Institute)

In 2018, Bella Cornell, a member of the Choctaw Nation, wore a beautiful custom-made red dress to her senior prom in Oklahoma. The piece, which was handmade by Della Bighair-Stump, a member of the Apsaalooke (Crow) Tribe of Montana, was made with red fabric, a color that represents missing and murdered Indigenous women, and worn as a form of activism. The pattern on the bodice is of Crow origins as a nod to the designer and the diamonds are important to the Choctaw people.

Now a sophomore in college, Cornell’s gown continues to have an impact as it’s currently on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and has been incorporated into the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

View Cornell’s dress in 3D below:

Cornell admits that she was shocked — and confused — when she first got the call from the museum, which has incorporated the piece into its “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” exhibit that aims to showcase ways in which girls have changed history.

“I had a lot of mixed emotions because Indigenous people have a history with these museums and it’s not a very positive one,” she explains to Yahoo Life. “Because I was so conflicted, I sought counsel from...a lot of my relatives and community members. They were very supportive of it because they said, ‘This is going to be a continuation of your advocacy work. It’s no longer a pretty dress you wore for one night, now it means something. Now it has a message attached to it and more people will be able to understand that now.”

Cornell says that she’s been an activist for as long as she can remember. “I’ve been doing this work since I was a little kid,” she says. “I kind of grew up around it because my mom was always really involved in the community and there was always something to be said. And I grew up going to a lot of rallies around certain things that were impacting the Indigenous communities and not only Indigenous communities but the wider community in general.”

In 2018, a study by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that there were 506 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women from 71 cities, a number the organization believes is an undercount. The organization also found that in 2016, of the 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, only 116 of those cases were logged by the Department of Justice. These are statistics Cornell finds alarming.

“We don’t get a lot of media coverage and there’s not a lot of representation for Indigenous people. And oftentimes when there is representation, it’s not completely accurate. ...For this crisis specifically, we go missing higher than 10 times the national average...a lot of police investigations don’t take it very seriously, we don’t get Amber Alerts. Not a lot of people care about this issue other than Indigenous people,” Cornell explains.

It’s this passion that inspired Kathleen Franz, a curator at the National Museum of American History, to make Cornell’s dress the centerpiece of the exhibition, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

“We just use this dress as a kind of node for her life activism, but it makes it material and it also connects to the lives of the many people who walk through the exhibition. So we not only want to tell our stories through the objects that are in the exhibition but also connect to what people know,” she explains.

Franz adds that when the exhibit was open to the public — it’s currently closed, as are all Smithsonian museums, due to COVID-19— she noticed visitors engaging with the story the dress told by having important conversations that they may not have had about the Indigenous community.

“It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Of course there was some push back from certain groups. I think it’s also really cool because it resonates with people of all different ages,” Clara dePablo, communications assistant for the National Museum of American History, says.

Cornell is excited about the reception the dress has gotten. And though she has yet to visit the exhibit due to the pandemic, she says she wants people to know that “it’s not just a pretty thing to look at.”

“I want them to look deeper into it,” she continues. “Read the sign next to it that goes into detail about what it stands for, the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic and how we’re going missing 10 times higher than the national average. And to really start caring about it more because it’s not talked about as much in the mainstream public. I just really want them to understand the severity of what is happening right now and really look deeper and to find ways that they can help or involve themselves in some way.”

The exhibition will be traveling the country as a part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 2023 through 2025. For those who cannot visit in person, there is a companion website where visitors can learn about the various items along with 3D scans.

Yahoo’s parent company Verizon partnered with the Smithsonian create the AR experience featured within this article. The article was created independently.

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