Working to end the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP) crisis in the face of settler colonialism is like trying to mop up the ocean. I don’t want to spend my time explaining or trying to convince you that settler colonialism created what we now know as the united states. All you need to do is look at a recent story that gripped the nation: Gabby Petito. Our society easily identifies victims of violence like her as worthy yet leaves the families of the 5,700 missing Indigenous women across the country to beg for their humanity, for the investment of time, energy, and resources required to be found.
In our Indigenous communities, many are saddened by the Petito family’s tragedy. I am saddened that a family has to mourn the loss of a daughter, but I’m grateful they have the chance at closure by bringing her body home. They will now face the long journey of grief that so many Indigenous families have yet to start.
It’s not lost on me that Gabby was white, young, and popular on social media. Her name was hashtagged nearly 74 million times (meanwhile, it’s been 923 days since a Shoshone-Bannock Tribal member went missing in the same area). No one should be surprised that Gabby’s story gained traction on social media. The vibrant, white, young social media influencer trope is ingrained into our collective consciousness. The news media lit and then fanned the flames of the story by running a stream of almost by-the-minute updates about her disappearance. Her body was found in less than two weeks, because we live in a society that places white women’s victimization above everyone else’s (remember: 923 days missing). White women are protected at all costs.
The morning I heard the news that Gabby’s body was found, I was reading through a handful of Indigenous missing persons reports; one included a death certificate for a young woman who went missing in the same eastern Idaho-western Wyoming region as Gabby. Unlike Gabby, her name, among so many others, never even made the news. We never hashtagged her. The larger community outside of the eastern Idaho-western Wyoming region didn’t blink an eye. I felt rage, frustration, and pain. This is the continuous erasure of Indigenous women: We go missing in real life. We go missing in the data. We go missing in the media.
I don’t serve tragedy porn. But you need to know the facts.
We don’t get “free money” from the government. We don’t have “special rules” on our reservations. We are not living on the edges of civilization, fighting one another for crumbs of food, dignity, and wellness. What you think you know about Indigenous communities could very well be wrong and perpetuate harmful narratives that make finding our loved ones even more difficult.
“Well, does she have an addiction issue?”
“Was she a sex worker?”
When the Urban Indian Health Institute published its “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” report in 2017 and found that “media sources have used language that could be perceived as violent and victim-blaming in their coverage of MMIWG cases,” we were not surprised. But we’d still like to correct the record.
We are students, dancers, dreamers, weavers, and storytellers. We ride horses, cruise back roads, gather berries, and harvest fish. We are doctors, teachers, lawyers, mechanics, nurses, drivers, and coaches. We are with you on professional boards of directors, homeowner’s associations, and parent-teacher organizations. We have learned to walk in the world of our colonizers—from education to white-collar spaces to systems of governance—while holding tightly to our own culture, languages, and ways of knowing. Indigenous people are solving problems created and perpetuated by settler colonialism. Let me be clear: These systems cause the problem, they make the mess, and Indigenous people are left to clean it up.
We have learned to walk in the world of our colonizers while holding tightly to our own culture.
In the face of tragedy, our white relatives practicing allyship want to help. But they should have already been helping. Y’all need to understand that access to housing, fresh food, victim assistance, transportation, quality education, internet, and health care all promote safety.
When non-Native folks hear about the senseless atrocities that occur in our communities—about the sheer number of loved ones lost to us—they want to show up with enthusiasm, pity, and sometimes with their checkbooks, asking how they can help. This is a complex, difficult issue that spans hundreds of years: Our isolation to reservations, our dehumanization, our marginalization outside the legal systems, and the deeply embedded racism we endure. There is no easy answer.
Before we part, what I can offer you is this: Amplifying the words of our sister, colleague, friend, and leader Dr. Abigail Echo-Hawk, MA, “Come to us because we have the answers, not because you think we have the most problems.”
And lastly, a reminder: Indigenous women need to be held as their whole selves—not as sexualized and fetishized tropes, not as mascots, not as servants, not as unworthy, but as true matriarchs and stewards of the land we now call the united states. Violence against Indigenous women is violence against the land.
Resources to Learn More About and Support the MMIW Crisis
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