By Lenore Three Stars
“Unci (grandmother), why do you have that cap there? I thought somebody was sitting in your car!”
Every summer, I pack up the car and head out for a few weeks of travel in Montana and South Dakota, usually by myself. The relatives I regularly visit live on two different reservations, though I have lengthened the trip to four. Always, I hang a hoodie sweatshirt over the headrest of the passenger seat and top it with a baseball cap. It’s true, I want it to look like somebody is sitting there. I make sure to arrive in the afternoon in the town where I will overnight so that I can pick up food from a grocery store to eat in my room. I stay in until it’s time to hit the road in the morning. No sense going out at night, making it known that I’m a woman traveling alone.
I imagine that Native women all over the country are taking safety precautions that they never did before. The ongoing phenomenon of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) is a sickening reality. Indigenous women of all ages are going missing at unprecedented rates and only sometimes the murdered bodies are found.
According to Senator Heitkamp’s (D-ND) website, “On some reservations, Native women are murdered at ten times the national average.” The National Institute of Justice states that more than 80 percent of Native American women have experienced violence in their life and that one in three have experienced rape. Native journalist Mary Annette Pember, responded, “I and all the Indian women I know want to know, however, who those other two women are who haven’t been assaulted—because we’ve never met them. The truth is that it’s been open season on Indian women for a very, very long time.”
When I was researching residential boarding schools and intergenerational trauma, I commented to a couple of my Native girlfriends, “Now I understand why I don’t know any Natives whose families, including my own, haven’t been hurt by abuse, violence, or addictions.” Both friends responded, “Neither do I. It’s not even surprising to hear that it happens.” What happens when that kind of norm comes up against a worldview that Native women are disposable? I think we are seeing it, both in America and Canada.
According to an NPR report in May 2018, there are about 300 MMIWG each year in Canada and the U.S, combined. An accurate number is not known because even if a local police report is filed, they are not routinely entered into the FBI crime database. There is no requirement to do so unless the person is a juvenile, and this permits “many Native women to fall through the cracks.” A doctoral student in Canada, Annita Lucchesi, has taken the initiative to create her own database by filing public record requests. She’s been able to document more than 2,000 cases in the U.S. and Canada for the last 20 years. ( https://www.npr.org/2018/07/21/627567789/doctoral-student-compiles-database-of-indigenous-women-who-ve-gone-missing)
The federal National Crime Information Center reported that in 2016, 5,712 Native women were reported missing. Because many cases are never reported, the number is likely higher. Often, families despair of even getting authorities to look for a missing loved one, as the process for reporting a missing person is frustrating, particularly when questions of jurisdiction are involved. Tribal law authorities can take a missing persons report but do not have authority to prosecute major criminal cases against non-Indians so the cases are referred to county, state, or federal authorities. A recent Government Accountability Office report stated that federal courts declined to prosecute 67 percent of reservation sexual assault cases. “This jurisdictional black hole has created a climate that many describe as ‘open season’ on Native women on reservations.”
Without a protocol for collecting data for MMIWG, it is difficult to gather an accurate picture. The United Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board (www.sihb.ord) researched available records in 71 U.S. cities and prepared a report based on data for the years1943 to 2018. Given the lack of record keeping, however, about 80% of the data is from 2000 to present. The report shows that for these 71 cities, there were 506 cases of MMIWG: 128 women were missing, 280 were murdered, and 98 remain unknown.
In October 2017, a bill, Savanna’s Act after a young mother-to-be victim, was introduced to standardize law enforcement and justice protocols. It is still in the Senate.
Additionally, Indian country cannot overlook the increased violence that “man camps” bring to areas like the Bakken oil fields in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, doubling the population with an influx of oil workers. This has created a toxic blend of colonial violence and environmental destruction. Native activist, Lisa Brunner, explained, “They treat Mother Earth like they treat women.” One more precaution: I intentionally route my driving to circumvent North Dakota as much as possible on my way from Montana to South Dakota.
As I wrestle with this picture of unrelenting marginalization, I recall that in September mom and I went to open house at my granddaughter’s school this year. Her assignment was to introduce her family members, and her teacher exclaimed, “You even brought your great grandmother!” Gazing on fondly, it occurred to me how natural it looked to see this great unci with her great granddaughter in this setting. Then I thought of the contrasting picture of my own great unci. Her setting was genocidal violence against her by the U.S. government, as she barely survived Wounded Knee in 1890. How did she reconcile being treated like she was disposable? These typed words attest that she endured and trusted by raising a new generation of Lakota. That was not a passive act. So, as I sense my ancestral cloud of witnesses, I will live into my DNA and choose both resistance and trust.
I choose to resist with at least my voice, and to trust the Isaiah 61 picture of the Spirit, a lover of justice, gathering broken but strong-hearted women from the margins back to the center of balance and liberation.
- The women who have come forward have found strength in numbers in the #metoo movement. They have found solidarity and support. For this season we have asked each of our authors to write about the dark and uncomfortable places, not necessarily sexual assault, where they too wish for those same things; solidarity, support, love and hope for a better future. Thank you for joining our journey