Since 2017, May 5th has been observed in the u.s. as the National Day of Awareness and Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons. Or something like that. Some events highlight awareness, others emphasize action, some are centered around Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, Stolen Sisters, or Stolen Sisters and Brothers. Some organizations now promote April 29-May 5 as an international week of awareness and solidarity.
May 5th is the birthday of Hanna Harris, a 21-year-old Northern Cheyenne woman who was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013. Hanna’s killers were found, but four out of five cases involving Indigenous women in North America who go missing are never solved. Combing through databases of local and state law enforcement, media and community agencies, the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) identified over 5700 cases nationally, of which only 116 made it into the national database compiled by the u.s. department of (in)justice.
The numbers are probably higher, says the UIHI report: “[I]f a woman or girl was killed during the time their tribe was terminated, her citizenship may have never been restored when her nation was re-recognized, and she may have been falsely classified as white—or not racially classified at all—in documentation regarding her case….This is an issue that still impacts contemporary cases involving victims from tribes that are not federally recognized, and lack of recognition is an issue that disproportionately affects urban Indian communities.”
Homicide is the third most common cause of death among Native American girls and women ages 10-24, and the fifth for women 24-35.
A few weeks ago, the u.s. supreme kkkourt ruled that tribal law enforcement can detain non-Native people on highways which run through reservations. “Previously, tribal law enforcement could only detain and search fellow Native Americans, which the Court acknowledged has limited tribal officers’ response to ongoing threats,” according to the San Jose Mercury News. “Native American women are murdered at 10 times the national average and most of the perpetrators are non-Native men,” including the two men who killed Hanna Harris.
Of the cases that UIHI looked at, 95% had not been covered by national or international media. According to Connie Walker, a Cree from Saskatchewan and host of the popular new podcast “Stolen: The Search for Jermain,” most cases of missing indigenous women and girls are not even covered by local media. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Walker recounted pitching a story when she was working for a national current affairs radio show in Toronto. The story was about a young indigenous woman she knew, who was missing, and whose case was not being covered at all, while at the same time, a white Toronto woman who was missing was on the front page of the local paper every day. Her editor held up her hand in the middle of the pitch and said, “This isn’t another poor Indian story, is it?”
I started hearing Canadian feminists of color talking about missing and murdered Indigenous women over fifteen years ago. Between 2000 and 2008, women and girls of First Nations/Aboriginal ancestry represented approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada, while making up only 3% of the population. In some western provinces, though, the proportions were even higher: 59% of missing and murdered women and girls in Saskatchewan were First Nations – nearly four times their representation in the province.
The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, popularized by the #MMIWG hashtag, has been gaining visibility in the u.s. in the last few years. In 2020, the president who shall remain nameless issued Executive Order 13898, aptly named “Operation Lady Justice,” creating a “task force for missing and murdered AI/AN peoples that will address the concerns of Indigenous communities in the U.S., such as data collection, policies, establish cold-case teams, and improve investigative responses.” Last month, in conjunction with president biden’s May 5 proclamation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Day, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), the first Native American secretary of the interior, announced the formation of the Missing and Murdered Unit that will focus on analyzing and solving missing and murdered Indigenous peoples (MMIP) cases.
Neither of these law enforcement-oriented solutions would likely be much comfort to the friends and families of Jackie Salyers (Puyallup), who was killed by a Tacoma, Washington police officer in January 2016, or Renee Davis (Muckleshoot), killed by two King County, Washington sheriffs during a “wellness check” later that year. Both women were pregnant.
Much less forthcoming has been any analysis of the roots of the problem in the history of white settler colonialism on this continent. “Pocahontas,” sanitized as a Disney heroine and used as a derogatory nickname by the Big Orange, “is the name of a young woman who, according to the oral histories of her people, was imprisoned in Jamestown, Virginia, by English colonists who killed her husband, took her baby from her, and then raped her in captivity,” writes Jacqueline Keeler (Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota) in Yes magazine.
Many non-Native activists have learned about the Missing and Murdered from long-time feminist and National/Tribal organizers who are now leading the fights against pipelines in the Midwest. These include Dawn Goodwin, White Earth Band of Ojibwe tribal citizen and a founder of RISE – Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging Minnesotas, Lakota water protector Wasté Win Young, who held a prayer vigil for #MMIW at Standing Rock, and Winona LaDuke (White Earth Ojibwe), best known as the 2000 Green Party vice presidential candidate, who cofounded Honor the Earth with the Indigo Girls (and did you know she’s an economist? I didn’t.). This isn’t a coincidence; the epidemic of violence targeting Indigenous women and girls is directly linked to the acceleration of “extractive, male-dominated industries near Native communities” (Sicangu CDC, newsletter from the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota).
Fossil fuel development projects bring hundreds of men, mostly non-Native, to “man camps” near reservations and pipelines, writes Kristen Grable in an article for Greenpeace. “In North Dakota, the Bakken ‘oil boom’ and resulting arrival of thousands of workers to the area brought with it a surge in rates of violent crime and aggravated assault. The state had at least 125 cases of missing Indigenous women during this time,” Grable reported.
When Montana attorney general tim fox intervened to stop a lawsuit against the Keystone XL pipeline in 2019, tribal representatives of the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations resigned in protest from the state’s Missing Indigenous Persons task force. “When our tribal members are at risk due to the pipeline / man camp situations I can’t side with this,” wrote Jestin Dupree, one of the two who resigned.
April Wiberg, who at one time was trafficked to provide sex to men living in the pipeline camps, founded the grassroots Stolen Sisters and Brothers Action Movement in Canada fourteen years ago.
In Seattle, where I now live, environmental activists with 350.org were recruited to help provide security for a May 5 prayer walk honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in South Seattle. The event was led by Roxanne White (Nez Perce, Yakama, Nooksack, Gros Ventre) who has dedicated her life to supporting the families of missing and murdered people. Everyone was asked to wear red, which created a striking image as the crowd of over 500 people snaked through the narrow streets – a virtual red river. Before the march, the gathering began with a number of traditional practices including a blanket ceremony, in which the family of each missing or murdered person was presented a blanket to honor her individual qualities. It was not short. When Roxanne asked the family members of MMIP to make a circle within the larger circle, the inner circle included at least 100 people, all of whom held a poster or banner adorned with a picture of their loved one. It reminded me of the tent protests in Palestine, where every family carried pictures of their people in prison.
Organizers of the prayer walk also made the connection with the struggle in Palestine, seeing the similarity between the expropriation of their own land and the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land. “We see what’s happening in Sheikh Jarrah, Haiti, East Africa, Columbia, and South America and what’s happening in our communities right now here in Seattle … everything’s connected,” South Seattle artist and activist Jerrell Davis told Chloe Collyer, a reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. (Ironically, the park where the gathering began is known as “Be’er Sheva Park,” renamed in 1977 for the israeli city with which Seattle had established a sister city program. In this era of renaming colonial monuments, maybe a campaign on the horizon?)
Of the 71 cities surveyed in the UIHI study of violence among urban Indians, Seattle had the highest rate of missing and murdered. In a 2010 survey, 94% of women who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native living in Seattle reported they had been raped or coerced into sex at least once.
The #MMIWG/MMIP has adopted a red handprint, reminiscent of the one Gran Fury designed in 1988 to remind the world about the AIDS crisis, as its logo. Rosalie Fish, a 20-year-old member of the Cowlitz tribe in Washington, got an agreement from the coaches at the University of Washington that she can wear the bloody handprint logo and other symbols when she competes for the university in track. According to an article in Runner’s World, “Fish was inspired to raise awareness through running after watching Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel run the 2019 Boston Marathon with a red handprint and MMIW painted on her body. The Kul Wičasa Lakota runner marked each of the 26.2 miles with a prayer for an Indigenous woman who was a victim of violence, which gave Fish hope when she needed a boost.”
In Canada, artivists recently hung red dresses outside a former residential school, to remind people of the brutal colonialist practice of stealing children.