Making Apparent the Hidden

Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit Individuals (#MMIWG2S)

From the Sept/Oct 2019 PNL #868

Ionah Scully


Painting of a Native American woman, made of "missing person" posters
"Still Dancing", a painting by Jonathan Labillois


With Halloween approaching, ‘Pocahottie’ costumes seem to be more prolific than actual Indigenous women. Not costumes, however we are physicians, professors, chancellors, students, storytellers, parents, sex workers, store clerks, activists, teachers, and healers. Some are not cis. Some are nonbinary or Two Spirit. We are resilient and most of us are many of these things at once and more. Not all of us are all still here, however.

The number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and queer/Two-Spirit (IWG2S) folks is astronomical. A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report shows that more than 84% have experienced violence,56% experiencing sexual violence specifically. The National Congress of American Indian Policy Research Center also noted in a 2018 study that the murder rate for IWG2S is more than 10 times the national average in some areas and that IWG2S are twice as likely to be raped than white women.

Who is responsible? Before asking about Native-on-Native crime (please don’t), both studies point out that the in at least 96% of the cases, non-Natives (usually white cis-het men) are responsible. This does not mean all non-Natives are perpetrators of violence, but neither does it absolve them of any culpability.

Let us turn to the #MeToo Movement. Originally created by Tarana Burke, a black woman, and already an ongoing conversation in Indigenous communities (as demonstrated in An Indigenous Response to the #MeToo Movement), the movement attempted to identify who were the perpetrators. It has been critiqued by many Black, Indigenous, and other women of color for questioning individuals rather than systemic causes of violence.

Black girls are blamed for their own sexual assault, amounting to the sexual abuse to prison pipeline wherein over 50% of girls in prison are survivors of abuse, evidenced by such cases as Bresha Meadows, Cyntoia Brown, and the New Jersey 4. While black women are often criminalized for their abuse, IWG2S are ignored. More than 5,700 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit folks (MMIWG2S) were reported in 2016, but the DOJ only logged 116. In the U.S., there is no national inquiry into MMIWG2S whereas (after much pressure) Canada recently conducted a national inquiry. Just 3% of Canada’s population, IWG2S represent 10% or more of all homicide cases of women and since Trudeau took office, an average of 3 IWG2S per month have been reported murdered.

A border patrol agent murdered 4 women, including Janelle Ortiz, a trans woman and mother-figure to her young sister. Amidst enactment of nationwide state-level abortion bans, first-time mother-to-be Marlen Ochoa-Lopez, a working-class woman of color, was killed and her to-be baby stolen from her body. This is similar to what happened to Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind (Dakota/Chippewa). A few days before the writing of this article, Bailey Reeves- a 17 year old black trans girl- was killed.

Rather than asking simply who, we also have to ask what is responsible and why? Violence continues at rates so alarming that it is futile to simply chase the “bad apples” in the bunch because the whole bunch is rotten. The violence is rooted in structures and sustained by multiple actors with specific agendas. How do the lives of Black and other folks of color bear importance to these questions?

Why am I asking so many questions? To resolve a problem,you must first understand the problem. Trudeau accepted that the inquiry findings in Canada amounted to genocide. In the same breath, however, he proposed a solution and days later approved the Trans Mountain Pipeline, despite the fact that violence against IWG2S rises exponentially around pipeline construction sites. Always built on Native land (because what is now called Canada and the U.S. is Native land) oil pipelines are typically routed through densely populated Indigenous communities. The only thing blocking profits are Native bodies. Gender and sexual violence has and continues to be a prime way of obtaining land for profit by disappearing a whole category of Native people- IWG2S- via the production of toxic (or violent) masculinity. Pipeline construction sites attract already disenfranchised workers in a capitalist economy that drives down wages and drives up the gap between the rich and the poor. Many of these workers are cis-het men who, displaced from their loved ones, live in “man camps” or isolated, temporary housing that just grows and festers violent masculinity.

To prevent violence against IWG2S thus requires examining these larger structures and asking what they are, what they support, who supports them, and why they are in place. These questions unravel colonialism’s attempts to disappear Native people: if Native people are relics, then the genocide that happened to us can be forgiven as a thing of the past and we can be honored via folklore, costumes, and mascots. The disappearance of IWG2S is testament to this legacy of erasure and the fact that the nation-state does little to acknowledge it amounts to genocide. With Natives eliminated, Black bodies stolen from Africa can be exploited to work unceded land, as seen in the days of chattel slavery through today’s school and sexual abuse to prison pipeline.

So how do we solve these problems when they are so complex and intertwined? Some say it is not doable to break down all these systems and instead offer quick solutions. Given the continued violence, I would question whether these fixes are reducing any harm. Angela Davis came to Syracuse University in the Spring of 2019 and instructed we should act as if it is radically possible to overhaul unjust systems. Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), professor of Native Studies (University of Alberta) also noted in a Media Indigena Podcast (July 2019) that the Canadian and U.S. systems of governance are but mere fractions of the millenia of Indigenous governance that has always been here. She reminds that they will not always be.

Harm reduction is important because daily moving through this earth is violent and I am sick of losing loved ones, of moving through my own trauma, of worrying if it may be my cousin or mom or me next. So how do we heal and reduce harm right now while also moving toward Davis’s and TallBear’s radical possibilities of hope?

With erasure a foundational feature of Native oppression, we can continue to have these conversations instead of pushing them to the sidelines. Position your conversations about climate justice and pipelines as an Indigenous decolonizing project. Support organizations like Indigenous Women Hike, and Sovereign Bodies. Cis men must examine their ideas of masculinity—and interrupt others’—calling into questions preconceived notions of consent, ownership, and heteronormativity. Every time one makes a mistake, and it will happen, apologize, do better, and toss some money at the above-noted organizations or others doing the work to end the violence of #MMIWG2S. It can be scary to wash off the standards of masculinity and colonization in which one has been steeped, but far less scary than losing another sister or sibling. Literal lives depend on it. 

Ionah (Michel Band) is a 2S doc student (she/they) in Cultural Foundations of Education at SU, professional Middle Eastern-style dancer, and decolonial hiker in recovery. This piece is dedicated to Cindy Gladue, Deanna Desjarlais, Savannah Greywind, and all the #MMIWG2S who are now our ancestors.