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Panelists discuss issue of missing and murdered indigenous women

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Erin Poor (left), Marisa Cummings (center) and Colette YellowRobe (right) speak as panelists for the Nebraska Human Trafficking and Migration Initiative on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Erin Poor (left), Marisa Cummings (center) and Colette YellowRobe (right) speak as panelists for the Nebraska Human Trafficking and Migration Initiative on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

On April 29, Boston Marathon runner Jordan Daniel made a statement that shocked the nation. With a red handprint painted across her mouth and her wrist held high with “For My People” tattooed in dark ink, Daniel used her platform to raise awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln made the platform the focus of its Human Trafficking and Migration Initiative this year. On Nov. 8 in the Nebraska Union Auditorium, a panel discussion about violence against Native women included panelists Marisa Cummings, Margaret Huettl, Corinne Oestreich, Colette YellowRobe and Erin Poor.

“When I look at our women, our indigenous women, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been sexually assaulted in some form, or anyone that hasn’t been beaten or had violence upon her,” Cummings said. “So, it’s not if it happened to them, it’s how many times that’s happened in their lifetime.”

According to data from the Sovereign Bodies Institute, Cummings said there are 44 total cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in Nebraska from 1908 to 2019. Of those 44 cases, 75% occurred between 2000 to 2019. She said 43% of those are murdered, and 57% are missing.

The hashtags #MMIW and #MWIWG2S are growing in popularity on several social media platforms as people become more aware of this issue. These metadata tags allow users to easily find posts on social networks pertaining to this issue. But according to Oestreich, a journalist and founder of the BUFFALO Project from Mohawk and Lakota cultures, the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis first began in 1492.

“First contact with settlers here in the United States was when we started having our women violently attacked or raped or murdered. And it hasn’t stopped; it’s continued even until today,” she said. “I think there’s this notion and this idea that’s the past, that’s something that doesn’t happen anymore. So to find out that it’s still occurring, it’s still happening, is somewhat shocking to others.”

Cummings, the director of Native Student Services at the University of South Dakota and Umonhon in the Buffalo Tail Clan of the Sky people, bases the start of this issue on the Doctrine of Discovery. She said this was the start of the dehumanization process, as it justified forms of violence.

“We see that even today transform into Halloween costumes, into Pocahontas movies,” she said. “You see the over-sexualization of Native women become something that’s normalized and accepted in American society. And that’s the root; the root goes back hundreds of years.”

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to protect the religious rights and cultural practices of indigenous people. Prior to the federal law, it was illegal for Native people to participate in their traditions or speak their languages.   

“We’re denied access to our culture and we are punished physically and sexually and are oppressed for having that culture,” Oestreich said, “then we are seeing settler communities take what they would like from those cultures and characterizing them and making them into Halloween costumes or making them into mascots for football teams. Essentially, with these images of us, having dehumanized us and portraying us in a way that makes it easy to believe that we no longer exist.”

According to Cummings, a direct correlation exists between the extraction of women and the extraction of land. She mentioned the setup of man camps, or trailers, at resource extraction sites where violence against women takes place.

“There’s prostitutes brought in, women that are in the sex trade. There are children that are abused in these man camps. There’s strippers that are flown in from Georgia,” she said. “It is a place that is not healthy or productive for women to be and live.”

Human trafficking can occur in many forms. Oestreich said the abuse from family relationships and cycles of addiction can also be causes of sexual exploitation. However, Cummings said admitting so is more difficult for Native people to do because of the historical trauma they faced.

“It’s hard, I think, for us sometimes to have those discussions with non-Native people because then it goes straight to a stereotype of us being drunks and us being abusers and us having no form of human decency,” she said. “So it’s really hard to be open and honest and begin to have those conversations, but I also think we need to be honest about the root causes of our women going missing.”

The panelists also discussed their choices and bold statements of using Native fashion as a form of resilience. Oestreich wore a medicine bag around her neck and rawhide earrings with Dakota floral painted onto them.

“The decision to incorporate pieces of my culture in my daily wear is an act of resistance because I’m saying ‘I don’t care,’” she said. “You’re going to know who I am. You’re going to know where I come from. And I’m going to be brave and wear it and represent who I am.”