Not Invisible: Raising Awareness of MMIW Through Art

By Heather Bruegl, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin/Stockbridge-Munsee, Policy Specialist, NIWRC
Kaysera Stops Pretty Places was reported missing on August 24, 2019, just ten days after her 18th birthday.  Her family has repeatedly tried to bring justice for Kaysera.  A portrait of Pocahontas hangs in the distance just beyond Kaysera.  The portrait, whose artist has yet to be discovered, was painted sometime after 1616 while she was in England. Photo provided by Heather Bruegl.

Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, a member of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes of Montana, should turn 22 this year. Like many other Indigenous women and girls nationwide, Kaysera went missing and was found murdered, with no one held accountable after four years.
Kaysera Stops Pretty Places grew up in Big Horn County, MT and on August 14, 2019, she celebrated her 18th birthday. Ten days later, Kaysera was reported missing.1 Her body was recovered on August 29. However, her family was not notified until September 11.2 There are still many questions concerning Kaysera’s disappearance and death. Her family continues to advocate for justice and is still awaiting answers. The circumstances of her death have been described as suspicious. Although her family has shared the evidence they gathered with the authorities, her case remains unsolved today. A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., hopes to shed some light on this crisis and lift Kaysera’s name.
When the National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1962, it was tasked with gathering portraits of those who “have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States.”3 The museum is home to over 23,000 works of art, including a new piece by artist Anna Tsouhlarakis (Diné/Muscogee Creek) titled “A Portrait of an Indigenous Womxn [Removed].”4 The piece features a missing poster for Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, who was murdered in 2019.
The museum’s Kinship exhibition explores the work of eight contemporary artists who look at the complexity of close, interpersonal relationships.5 There are over 40 works in the collection, including Tsouhlarakis’ piece featuring Kaysera. “Each of the artists explores intergenerational dynamics and the crucial role of storytelling and memories in fostering connections beyond physical and symbolic thresholds,”  said Leslie Ureña, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.6
When approached about the Kinship exhibition, Anna knew she wanted the piece to be meaningful and impactful. As Anna thought about what the museum already housed and having visited the museum before, she was shocked to see that there weren’t many contemporary portraits of Indigenous peoples.

In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute released an extensive study on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis.  As of  2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women. Still, only 116 were logged into the Department of Justice’s database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).7 The report examines various factors that lead to the MMIW crisis — an issue within reservations and urban Indian populations.
Anna mentions how that study sparked something in her. “I realized that I could contribute to that [MMIW] movement through this performance, and then the idea came to me, that initial idea of doing something with MMIW.”9 Incorporating images of MMIW into a space like the National Portrait Gallery shows that these stories are just as important to tell in this national space. When coming up with what she would contribute, Anna talked about how she heard of Kaysera’s case and then met Grace Bulltail, Kaysera’s aunt.

Knowing she wanted to include Kaysera in this exhibition, Anna approached Grace. Anna’s work focused on highlighting stories that don’t get told. But Anna does not want to stop there. The National Portrait Gallery is just the beginning of the visual and performance work that Anna will be doing around MMIW. She hopes to highlight others who have been lost to this crisis of violence. Aubrey Dameron, a transgender Cherokee woman who went missing in 2019, and Ella Mae Begay, an elder from Navajo Nation who went missing in 2021, will also have pieces done by Anna to help bring awareness to this crisis and highlight that Indigenous women experience violence disproportionately and disparately.
“I’ve learned a lot through Anna and through the work that she’s been doing. I’ve learned a lot about the people and the families and that families are real activists and at the forefront of the movement and advocating for their family members,” said Charlotte Ickes, Curator of Time-Based Media and Special Projects at the National Portrait Gallery.12 Charlotte looks at the piece on Kaysera as part of a more significant project to bring awareness surrounding MMIW. She also speaks about how the work is curated in the collection and how the placement is critical. “So our early collection, throughout the museum, contains pieces from 1600-1900, and Kinship runs perpendicular to the early works. And the site line is such that if you’re approaching Anna’s work, which features…the poster of Kaysera, in your sight line, there’s a portrait of Pocahontas in our collection, a painting—probably taken from life when she was in London. She is considered one of the first missing girls. The position was powerful that this history is not new.”13

A piece that brings awareness to the MMIW crisis in a national museum is powerful for helping galvanize justice, accountability, and social and systemic changes. Kaysera’s family, like so many others, is still waiting for answers. They continue to fight for justice and accountability and bring awareness to her case, which, like all other MMIW stories, is preventable.

Please see for more information.

Kinship will be on display until January 7, 2024.

1 “Justice for Kaysera: Sovereign Bodies Institute, NIWRC and Pipestem Law unite in call for justice for Kaysera Stops Pretty Places,” accessed February 8, 2023,….
2 “About the Case”, accessed February 8, 2023,
3 “About”, National Portrait Gallery, accessed January 31, 2023,
4 National Portrait Gallery.  “National Portrait Gallery Presents “Kinship”.  National Portrait Gallery Press Release, September 28, 2022.
5 “Current Exhibitions”, National Portrait Gallery, accessed January 31, 2023,
6 Ibid.
7 Urban Indian Health Institute, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: A snapshot of data from 71 urban cities in the United States (Seattle, WA: Seattle Indian Health Board: 2018).
8 Ibid.
9 Anna Tsouhlarakis, interviewed by author, via Zoom, December 16, 2022.
10 Andre’ B. Rosay, “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men”, NIJ Journal 277 (2016):  38-45,
11 Urban Indian Health Institute, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: A snapshot of data from 71 urban cities in the United States (Seattle, WA: Seattle Indian Health Board: 2018).
12 Charlotte Ickes, interviewed by author, via Zoom, December 16, 2022.
13 Ibid.