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Red handprints over mouths of Topeka High basketball players had this special meaning

Athletes at all levels have a platform.

Whether it's a high school team running out with American flags on a Military Appreciation night or professional athletes speaking out about social justice.

On Tuesday, as the Topeka High girls basketball team took part in Late Night at the Dungeon, an annual event introducing the boys and girls basketball teams, the girls had a handprint of red paint over their mouths.

Why did the team paint red handprints on their faces at Topeka High?

November is Native American Heritage Month and a red handprint across the mouth is a symbol of solidarity in support of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in North America, a population that is disproportionally more likely to be murdered or sexually assaulted.

A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice found that 84% of American Indian and Alaskan Native women had experienced violence in their lifetime and 56% of those had experienced sexual violence.

The Topeka High girls basketball team pose for a group photo Tuesday's Late Night in the Dungeon with red handprints across their faces to show support for missing and murdered Indigenous women during Native American Heritage Month.
The Topeka High girls basketball team pose for a group photo Tuesday's Late Night in the Dungeon with red handprints across their faces to show support for missing and murdered Indigenous women during Native American Heritage Month.

Four members of the girls basketball team — coach Brittney Redmond and players Kiki Smith, Jo'Mhara Benning and Brooklyn Jones — have Native American ancestry.

Smith, part of the Comanche tribe, grew up around the Native American culture, going to powwows and started playing on a Native American AAU basketball team last year in addition to competing with the Missouri Phenom, another top level AAU program.

Topeka High's Kiki Smith (25) had the idea to put a red painted hand over her mouth for Late Night at the Dungeon to support missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her teammates loved the idea.
Topeka High's Kiki Smith (25) had the idea to put a red painted hand over her mouth for Late Night at the Dungeon to support missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her teammates loved the idea.

"My mom had first brought it to my attention about doing it," said Smith of the red handprint idea for Late Night. "At first I was just going to do it, just myself. But then I like thought of the idea of asking the team, just to get involved, to just spread more awareness around because we have a couple of other native girls on the team as well.

"Just bringing more awareness to those entities, indigenous women who do go missing, and lately the rates have been going up with more people. No more awareness is getting out. So I thought why not? Why not join that and get more people aware?"

Why did the team choose Late Night at the Dungeon?

A text to the team's group chat with information about the MMIW movement had everyone jump on board right away and the whole team donned the handprint for the team's intrasquad scrimmage.

"Like tonight," said Smith before Late Night. "People come and obviously a lot of people are gonna wonder what it is and (it will) just get it out there more."

Benning, who is Cherokee, said she immediately was on board when she saw the text.

"We're bringing light to the fact that people aren't using their voice," said Benning. "We have to use their voice for them because they can't. I was excited. I was like, 'Yes, let's do it.'"

Jo'Mhara Benning (45) dribbles down court  during Tuesday's scrimmage at Late Night in the Dungeon. Benning is part Cherokee.
Jo'Mhara Benning (45) dribbles down court during Tuesday's scrimmage at Late Night in the Dungeon. Benning is part Cherokee.

Jones, part of the Potawatomi tribe, said she thought it was interesting when she heard the idea knowing that Native American women go through many battles and aren't heard because of their ancestry.

"Most of my grandpa is full native and then his parents are full native," said Jones. "My mom, she's native and basically I grew up on the reservation, like 30 minutes from school. When I came here, because I did used to live in Garden, I thought it was really cool that there were other natives on the basketball team."

Redmond is part of the Apache tribe and was receptive to the idea that her players wanted to use their voice for something beyond basketball.

"I was absolutely all for it," said Redmond. "I know these girls. They're always in the media. So they do have a small platform and just being a coach, being a leader, being their mentor, I'm gonna encourage them to use that platform for issues that are dear to them, stuff that they care about."

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Topeka girls basketball team wear red handprints on face for MMI women