'We dressed to honor them.'

Sometimes photographers succeed by controlling the variables, sometimes not, says Kathy Aney, a photojournalist who lives and works in Umatilla County. At times, photos unfold serendipitously and the photographer is there to record the moment.

Two Native American women in traditional regalia holding the portrait of another woman in front of landscape
Mildred Quaempts and Merle Kirk hold a portrait of Mavis Kirk-Greeley, who died in 2009 after her boyfriend allegedly deliberately hit her with his vehicle on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Kirk-Greeley is Quaempts’ daughter and Kirk’s sister. Kathy Aney/Underscore
June 29, 2021
By Kathy Aney, freelance photojournalist

I bumped along a gravel road, dust exploding behind my RAV4, headed for a photo assignment on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The road meandered along McKay Creek, flanked by steep hills, deep into spotty cell phone country southeast of Pendleton. 

The photos would illustrate a story on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, written by Brian Bull.

Merle Kirk, who had lost her sister, a cousin and a grandmother, agreed to be photographed. I asked if she might wear the red dress that she wears to MMIWG events or maybe the red t-shirt bearing the beaded portrait of her sister that has become a symbol of the movement. And, could she bring other items to help tell the story?

When I pulled into Merle’s driveway on the appointed day, Merle stepped out of the house in a red dress bedecked with full Indian regalia. Behind came her mother, Mildred Quaempts, in similar finery. My breath caught, overwhelmed with how beautiful they looked. 

They said they knew just the place for photos on a nearby hill that overlooked valleys on two sides. I followed their car up a steep, rutted dirt road that seemed headed to the top of the world. 

When I got out, my inner photographer did handstands. These women, this place. The location was stunning. 

Merle unloaded a portrait from her car of her murdered sister, Mavis Kirk-Greeley, a young woman with clear, serious eyes. She wore a beaded headband and held a feather fan. 

As the women held the portrait and posed for me, Mildred teared up. It’s sad, she said, thinking about those we have lost. Later, Merle said, she and her mother had discussed what to wear for the photo shoot. “We dressed to honor them,” she said.