Indigenous Women take the Forefront to Address the Global Epidemic of Violence they Face; and the Rising, Unaddressed Issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women #MMIW
Cheryl McDonald, Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk
A woman sat by her side for support. To her left, old photographs of her family were projected onto a screen. Cheryl McDonald laughed and smiled as she told stories of her childhood growing up on the Onondaga and Mohawk territories. She laughed as she remembered stories about going hunting with her father and things he used to say to her.
She remembered always being told that she’s a strong Mohawk woman. Smiling again and nodding, “damn right,” she says. McDonald’s sister was also taught she was a tough Mohawk woman. McDonald believes this idea of toughness cost her sister years of abuse and eventually her life, which could have potentially been saved if only she weren’t an Indigenous woman.
Canada is the first North American country to officially recognize the disappearance of Indigenous women. In 2015, Canada launched the National Inquiry of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) at the request of Indigenous families, organizations and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The inquiry was called to examine the disproportionate violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls.
In 2014, Canada acknowledged approximately 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or murdered across Canada and that gaps still exist in their local police reports. This kind of official inquiry is more than what the U.S. and Mexico have conducted. Estimates of missing Indigenous women in the U.S. are as high as 5,700 and in Mexico; while a rate of 7 femicides occur each day, the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women are less clear, but widely known to occur.
The UN State of the World’s Indigenous People reports that rape is used as a weapon and turned against indigenous women for the ethnic cleansing and demoralization of Indigenous people. In the U.S. Indigenous women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average; higher than that of any other race. Indigenous women are becoming their greatest advocates and allies to turn around this epidemic of violence, within their communities, their nations and their families. Through storytelling, reclaiming traditions, and addressing traumas through art, activism, and policy change; Indigenous women are reclaiming their voices, identity, and working to shift racist narratives and behaviors that have been detrimental to their lives.
On March 11th, McDonald testified before Canada’s National Inquiry of MMIWG in Montreal. A traditional dress of the Mohawk people hung on a mannequin between McDonald and the screen projecting images of her family and lost sister. Below the screen was an empty chair with a handmade quilt draped over it. Pictures of McDonald’s sister also rested on the chair.
McDonald’s sister Carleen went missing in 1988 on the Akwesasne Mohawk territory. Carleen had broken up with the father of her children and returned to her parent’s home, after years of living on the Onondaga Nation. She had left a note that she’d gone out and would be back. She never returned. “For Seven weeks we went through hell trying to find her. By chance a deer hunter came across her skeletal remains two kilometers from my parent’s home,” McDonald says.
Akwesasne straddles the U.S. and Canadian borders and police jurisdictional authority in 1988 was very complicated. McDonald believes that Mohawk police agencies failed to properly investigate her sister’s disappearance and retrieval of her skeletal remains. She does not fault the police, but the governments of Canada and the U.S., which do not properly fund and train first nations police to handle missing persons and crimes. She says that first nations police should have the same level of competencies as provincial and state police. If they don’t, then they should be working together to share those resources.
Growing Up, Tough
Looking back McDonald remembers stoic women in her life. Now, she knows these elderly women were injured and suffered years of emotional abuse and physical violence. As a young woman the prevailing attitude was: You made your bed, so sleep in it. Don’t tell your business. Well, do you want to be a doormat? If he walks all over you, don’t cry to me. McDonald says there was no one to turn to. “My daughters have children now. I have grandchildren. I don’t want them to receive that old way of thinking.” She believes her sister Carleen suffered from depression. Carleen had been a victim of physical abuse for years, but she didn’t talk about it. After Carleen’s body was found, McDonald and her family closed the door on her sister’s story and never looked back for nearly 30 years, until now.
The Red Dress — A Symbol of a Movement
Inspired by her healing and recently opening up Carleen’s story, McDonald began beading images of the red dress logo, which is used to symbolize the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement (MMIW). Piece by piece, she beaded the red dress onto a traditional styled crown. And low and behold, she found an actual red dress from a local traditional artist. It fit her like a glove.
Envisioning what the regalia would look like, she began making a traditional yoke, then a belt, and cuffs. The dress wasn’t even finished when she received a call from the Montreal Red Urban Project Dancers, to join them at the St. Jean the Baptiste parade in Montreal.
“For a lot of Indigenous people in the Montreal area and in Quebec, there’s kind of been this separation between the Mohawk and French. I thought it was really important to go there with this ‘red dress regalia.’ I thought it was time to go public,” McDonald says. She put ribbon on the dress as its finishing touch.
McDonald has met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in this dress; danced in a Montreal’s Gay Pride Parade called Défilé de la fierté gai; attended the Montreal summer symphony, and danced in public forums to raise awareness for all the Indigenous women who no longer walk amongst their people, with their families, or children. McDonald feels a connection to her sister when she’s in this dress, it was something she wasn’t able to feel when her sister first left this world.
This red dress was displayed on the mannequin when McDonald testified for her sister.
Violence Against Indigenous Women Worldwide
Louise McDonald, Akwesasne Mohawk
“If you can put the heart of women on the ground, you have conquered a nation,” says Louise McDonald, also known as, “Mama Bear,” the traditional Bear Clan Mother for the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. It is one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, located across, what is now New York State and crosses into Canada. “Mama Bear” asks, “Who are the original titleholders of this lands? It’s the women. The land is a woman. If you remove the power of women, then you silence the original owners of the lands. But, we know she, the woman, is the true holder to the title to the land.”
Louise McDonald termed the expression “Mother Law.” She explains that women are the true powers of Indigenous society — that it is the women who chooses their leaders, have authority over the economy and decide the timing of child bearing within their society. She says that Indigenous cultures follow the laws of nature and that the law of nature is hidden within the DNA of women. It’s the mitochondrial DNA that is passed only from a mother to her child.
According to “Mama Bear”, when Europeans saw a world ruled by women, they tried to silence it through killing, rape, and assimilation — thus genocide. She says it is true domination to put Indigenous women on the bottom of the societal ladder. It is only then, that Indigenous women can then be violated, dominated, beaten and made to be less than under the law. And that’s what has happened, but no more, she says.
Hayley Marama Cavino, Ngati Pukenga, Ngati Whitikaupeka (Māori), Pakeha
Originally from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Hayley Marama Cavino is a professor of Indigenous studies at Syracuse University, and teaches an Indigenous Women’s Lives: Culture, Colonization, Resistance. Cavino teaches that the explosion of violence against Indigenous women is undergirded by colonialism. In her homelands, this would be British colonialism. “Anywhere that there is settlement and empire building, you will see this play out. At its heart, it’s about the acquisition of land. It’s important to understand how land is often at the heart of the violences visited on the bodies of Indigenous women,” she says.
“I’m also really interested in the reinstatement of Indigenous women’s power and authority in our own communities.” There’s a long history of interventions and talking back to colonialism in Aotearoa. Moteatea, sung poems, many composed by the women of her community, are an ancient form of speaking. Sometimes these poems are used to speak about experiences of abuse — a relatively rare occurrence in pre-colonization, she says. In the poems, you’ll hear about the experience, what was done about it, and how people felt. “We know for example that people were banished for abusing women, or they were killed outright. We know our women had the agency to up and leave.”
“We’ve got all kinds of activists and community workers– men and women — taking on these issues too. One example, #PedoFreePae, that’s about getting pedophiles out of our leadership structures. There’s so much going on,” Cavino says.
She’s cautious about relying on quantitative data alone, because it can’t do the contextualization work that needs to be done within Indigenous communities. Statistics have had negative impacts on narratives about Indigenous peoples. She says statistics focus on violence against Indigenous women as an individual event. “I don’t see it that way. Violence has a whakapapa, a genealogy, and we know the impacts ripple out and affect EVERYONE,” she says.
Nicole Matthews, White Earth Band of Ojibwe
Nicole Matthews knows that colonization causes Indigenous women to fall prey to violence and mostly at the hands of non-Indigenous offenders. For over 16 years Matthews has worked for Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition in St. Paul, Minnesota. Matthews is the executive director for the coalition. Her mission is to create safety and justice for Indigenous women by addressing sexual violence, trafficking, and the intersectionality with MMIW, racism, and colonization by educating tribal leaders and policy makers. Her organization provides culturally specific technical training on sexual assault advocacy, engaging men in these conversations, and addressing violence against two-spirit, LGBTQ, relatives.
Matthews was one of five interviewers who conducted research on a report called, Garden of Truth: the Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota. Of the 105 women interviewed, 21% reported being trafficked in Indigenous lands where the primary buyers and seller were non-Indigenous. In 2013–2016 there were only 14 federal investigations and 2 federal prosecutions across the country, including Alaska. To Matthews these numbers seem alarmingly low.
Matthews heard from the women she interviewed, that there was a need for cultural healing and not everyone has access to ceremonies. “I think that many of our people are disconnected from our communities and often survivors are blamed. We need to start welcoming our relatives back home,” she says. A lot of tribal communities will have welcome home ceremony for those who were adopted out, to have a chance to reconnect. “I’ve seen ceremony for adoptees. How great that would be for native women who have been used in trafficking and prostitution? They feel disconnected and feel the stigma.”
Cristina Serna, Otomi, Queer Xicana
Serna is a professor of women’s studies at Colgate University. A queer Xicana with roots from Mexico and Los Angeles, Serna uses art and activism as a way of helping her students and sisters on both sides of U.S. and Mexican borders to find healing. “Students choose to work on traumas. I don’t ask them to. By taking a trauma and making art from it, people don’t feel alone,” she says.
Serna says a lot of Indigenous women from her home country are often victims of violence and murder. NAFTA caused a lot of new maquiladoras, sweatshops, to pop up along the border. A lot of Indigenous women migrated to the border town of Ciudad Juarez, where many of these women are murdered. Serna says violence doesn’t happen just in the border towns, but that it’s throughout the rest of Central America. A lot of women are raped as a form of discipline for being an activist.
“Sometime we shut our eyes to rape culture,” she says. “Patriarchy teaches us to keep the secrets of patriarchy, in our families and then on up from there.”
As a professor teaching in women’s studies and her partner working in counseling, they are often spending many hours helping students outside of office hours, addressing sexual abuse and violence. Serna says it can be challenging because not many other faculty take on this kind of role. “The chemistry professor gets to go home at the end of his day,” she says.
“I’m teaching that people are not just victims. They don’t need to be saved. At the head of resistance are those most impacted — they are the ones working to improve the world for us.”
It’s important in her work for the white middle class to understand that they need to follow members of marginalized groups who are leading the transformation of all oppressive systems, and to not leave people behind. “White middle class activism has often left people behind. This is one of the main points that I want to drive for my students — Who is left out?”
A Personal Side Note: Sisters Supporting Sisters
I placed Cheryl’s story on social media that she testified at the National Inquiry. Comments from Indigenous sisters began popping up to congratulate Cheryl on her courage and thanking her for telling her sister’s story. What I’ve learned from working with my Indigenous sisters is that if one of us speaks — she speaks on behalf of all of us. Never are we alone when an Indigenous woman takes a stand.
As Cheryl travels back and forth across a border, foreign to the Haudenosaunee, she is bringing healing. By telling her story and dancing in her red dress, she is bringing healing to the people and to the lands that our women are spiritually connected to. She is awakening the stories within our people. There’s a recognition in Cheryl’s journey to healing, as many of us have suffered at the hands of violence and have been impacted by trauma — but times are changing.
Root Causes — Sanctioned Genocide
Residential Schools and Intergenerational Trauma
Violence entered Indigenous communities through colonization and specifically through residential schools that were sanctioned by Canadian and U.S. governments. Many schools run by Christian missionaries were contracted by the governments. Children subsequently suffered PTSD, which was handed down generation after generation. The trauma these children endured — for those who survived, as many children died — accounts for the high rates of violence, suicide, substance abuse, sexual assault and the ravaging health disparities experienced in Indigenous communities today.
“Kids were at the mercy of manipulations of adults. There was psychological abuse and physical abuse. Corporal punishment was commonplace. Deprivation of food and sexual abuse occurred nightly;” said Doug George from the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation who is a survivor of one of Canada’s most notorious boarding schools called, “the mush hole.”
Approximately 150,000 children attended residential boarding schools according to the Canadian government. Data is still being sought for the some 500 schools that were run in the U.S., according to Boarding School Healing Coalition. In the U.S., an estimated 60,000 students were enrolled at the time the last of these residential schools closed their doors in the 1970s. The last school to close in Canada was in 1996.
Jonel Beauvais is a community outreach worker for the Akwesasne Mohawk based organization, Seven Dancers Coalition, focuses on ending violence against Indigenous women through cultural support. “I see a lack of emotional connection. There’s a big void and this can fuel violence. People then feel they have an inherited right to do something to somebody else because of what happened to them,” Jonel said. “The disconnect is tied to what happened in residential schools. Our people were just regrouping from the violence already inflicted upon us by war when these residential schools opened.”
“Residential schools were the final bullet to the head,” Beauvais says.