Isabella Aiukli Cornell’s 2018 prom dress on display in the Smithsonian Girlhood exhibit. (Gaylord News / Emma Sears)

WASHINGTON — High school prom can feel like one of the most important events in a teenager’s life.

For Isabella Aiukli Cornell, her Junior prom in 2018 was about more than just wearing a stylish gown to a high school gymnasium. It was an opportunity to call attention to what has been described as an epidemic of murder and abuse faced by Native American women.

“We have a really high rate of women who go missing every year and there’s not a lot of media coverage about it,” Cornell said. “I wanted to make a statement about the ongoing crisis going on in our communities.”

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

The statistics are sobering. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Native women are murdered at a significantly higher rate than any ethnic group but Black women. Figures from the National Institute of Justice suggest that 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.

For her prom, Cornell, who is from Oklahoma City and a member of the Choctaw Nation, chose a custom-made dress by Crow designer Della Bighair-Stump of Hardin, Montana. The purpose was to bring attention to the peril faced by Indigenous women.

“The color red is symbolic of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement,” Cornell said. “The bodice was made to incorporate a little bit of the (Choctaw) tribe by adding diamonds to the design.”

Red is the official color of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement. It’s a bold color meant to symbolize that indigenous women’s issues will be seen and heard.

Multiple native tribes also believe red is the only color spirits can see and that it can guide the spirits of the the dead to rest.

Cornell’s prom dress choice ended up making national headlines and was featured in magazines across the country.

Teen Vogue wrote, “Native dresses, like the ones designed by Della, are highlighting the unique way young Native people are incorporating their traditional heritage into contemporary spaces as a way to show off their ancestral pride.”

“I am just super honored and very happy that my dress will be getting a lot of coverage,” Cornell said. “A lot of times the only people talking about MMIW are Native people.”

Red dress reaches the Smithsonian

Girlhood (It’s Complicated) exhibit entrance in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. (Gaylord News / Emma Sears)

A year after the magazines were sold, Cornell and her mother were contacted by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History about including the gown in a new exhibit called Girlhood.

The Girlhood exhibit was created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage by showcasing how women have changed history in five areas: politics, education, work, health and fashion.

Cornell’s dress is displayed in the center of the fashion section. Later, it will tour the country through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 2023 through 2025.

“While I am a little bit sad that I don’t get to have it in my physical possession anymore, I’m more happy that a lot of other people will be able to learn something from it and for more awareness to be spread because that’s the whole mission behind it,” Cornell said.

Cornell, who is a student of Fort Lewis College, a former Indian boarding school turned public college, never expected to find her prom dress in the center of a Smithsonian museum exhibit. However, she says that it gave her a chance to educate others on the struggles that Indigenous women face. 

“By having it in the museum that means that a lot of other people will be able to see it and understand what’s going on,” Cornell said. “That’s really just the whole goal behind all of this.”