No More Stolen Sisters: Stopping the Abuse and Murder of Native Women and Girls

Jessica Alva. Khadija Rose Britton. Hanna Harris. Anthonette Christine Cayedito. If you haven’t heard of these women, it’s no surprise.

They’re four of the untold number of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered, kidnapped or gone mysteriously missing. A significant number of victims are from communities that are subjected to the harmful presence of fossil fuel and mining companies. The extractive industry is ravaging Native nations where oil and blood have long run together.

Add to this a dysfunctional police and legal hierarchy that leaves Indigenous women and their families with little support during the first crucial hours when they go missing, and little recourse to prosecute predators for their crimes.

In this program, powerful Native women leaders reveal the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and describe how they are taking action and building growing movements, including with non-Native allies. Morning Star Gali, Ozawa Bineshi Albert, Simone Senogles, Kandi White, and Casey Camp Horinek.

These stories are shocking, harrowing and heartbreaking. But then again, when your heart breaks, the cracks are where the light shines through.

RESOURCES

The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women

Article from The Intercept: “A New Film Examines Sexual Violence as a Feature of the Bakken Oil Boom”

Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples: MMIW Initiative

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.

Subscribe to the Bioneers: Revolution from The Heart of Nature podcast


Transcript

NEIL HARVEY, HOST: In this program, powerful Native women leaders first reveal the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women – and then describe how they are taking action and building growing movements, including with non-Native allies…

Morning Star Gali, Ozawa Bineshi Albert, Simone Senogles, Kandi White, and Casey Camp Horinek.  

This is “No More Stolen Sisters: Stopping the Abuse and Murder of Native Women and Girls.” I’m Neil Harvey, I’ll be your host. Welcome to the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.

Jessica Alva Khadija Rose Britton. Hanna Harris. Anthonette Christine Cayedito. 

If you haven’t heard of these women, it’s no surprise. They’re four of the untold number of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered, kidnapped or gone mysteriously missing. 

A significant number of victims are from communities that are subjected to the harmful presence of fossil fuel and mining companies. The extractive industry is ravaging Native nations where oil and blood have long run together. Oil workers, mostly men, live in housing units commonly called “man camps.” They’re notoriously dangerous places for indigenous women and girls.

Add to this a dysfunctional police and legal hierarchy that leaves Indigenous women and their families with little support during the first crucial hours when they go missing, and little recourse to prosecute predators for their crimes.

As Lisa Brunner, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, and a longtime victim’s advocate says: “What’s happened through US Federal law and policy is they created lands of impunity where this is like a playground for serial rapists, batterers and killers and our children aren’t protected at all.”

While some news outlets report on these tragedies, each headline eventually fades and the stories have gone mostly unheard.  [Montage of news clips]

These stories are shocking, harrowing and heartbreaking. But then again,  when your heart breaks, the cracks are where the light shines through.

Morning Star Gali is a member of the Pit River Indian Tribe of California. She’s a lifelong indigenous rights activist and born into a family who has fought for the rights of Native peoples in California and beyond. 

As part of her organizing work addressing the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis, she provides direct support to victims’ families.

Morning Star Gali: We held a prayer gathering and a press conference outside of San Francisco City Hall, and we held it for a sister of mine that was murdered six months ago. And her death has been ruled as a suicide. And we are pushing within the DA’s office, within the city officials to conduct a full investigation. 

We had for three days, while she was on life support, and had people coming in to pray and offer those songs and offer those ceremonies, and it was made very clear, it was very evident that she was native, and yet on her death certificate her race was still listed as unidentifiable.  

And in her death, it was her partner, there was a history of domestic violence. He had given a fake name. He was not on the lease, and he was allowed to stay in her apartment, clean up the crime scene, called it into the ambulance as a suicide, and that’s what the San Francisco Police Department went by, and so they failed in every way possible.  

There’s been a number of deaths. We are very much still grieving. We are very much in disbelief that this is the work that we are doing, and yet it’s our sisters that are being directly impacted. 

And so we spend a lot of our time just going to meet with families, and listening to them, and sitting with them in support and prayer, just letting them know that we are doing whatever we can just as community members, as people that are also affected by this, to help to hold them in that love and in that support, and helping to get the word out about their family members.

Ozawa Bineshi Albert: Across the nation, many police forces do not take serious what is happening to indigenous women. Disappearances, murders, are often dismissed and they’re not prioritized. 

Host: Ozawa Bineshi Albert is an Oklahoma-based Native Rights and Environmental Justice advocate. A leader from the Yuchi and Anishinabe Nations, she works on global collaborations to strengthen grassroots feminist movements. Up close and personal, she witnesses how police departments and courts disappear these women just as surely as the perpetrators who kill them.

Ozawa Bineshi Albert: There was a case where they found a woman tied and bound in a ditch with no shoes, but they have deemed it no foul play. Right? So, I lost an auntie a couple years ago a block and a half from her house, killed on the train tracks. And the police have deemed it an accidental death of an alcoholic person, right? That she would make a decision to choose to sit on a train track and drink is what they’re proposing. Her house, warm, was a block and a half away. Right? But they’re like, oh no, there was no murder, no foul play.

So there’s also this policy of practice that’s part of that culture of saying women are lesser than, and indigenous women are even lesser than that. We’re not wasting our resources to investigate murders of indigenous women. Which is why the creation of a database has not happened from any criminal justice system, it’s happened from indigenous communities saying we need to create a database because police forces, FBI, they’re not doing it.

Host: The nonprofit Sovereign Bodies Institute is the first organization to document how Indigenous people are impacted by gender and sexual violence, and maintains the most thorough and accurate database on missing and murdered indigenous women in the United States. 

In a single year in 2016, nearly 5,700 Indigenous women were reported missing. Only 2% of those cases even made it to the records of the U.S. Department of Justice, according to a study by the Urban Indian Health Institute

Altogether, Indigenous women experience 10 times higher rates of violence, murder, sex trafficking, and abuse than women of other ethnicities. And statistically, a great number of these crimes are happening in communities where oil and mining workers are housed in so called man camps.

Kandi White with the Indigenous Environmental Network, lives in Montana and is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.

Living in her ancestral homeland, Kandi has witnessed firsthand how blood and oil mix with misogyny and racism, and there’s little if any protection from the law. 

Kandi White: All these thousands of men came from all over the world and set up like little shantytowns, really. Some of them were RV trailers, some of them were just cars people were living in. They would work long hours roughnecking, they call it. And then when they had down time, they weren’t with their families. So they would either go to the bars, they would start using or abusing drugs. 

All of that led to our community having a 168% increase in the violence against women. We started seeing women being raped, we started seeing women as young as 13, maybe even 12, selling themselves. They would go into man camps willingly, and then they would get raped and there would be nowhere to turn to for them. There was just story after story after story of sex trafficking. people tried to kidnap our children and put them into the sex trade. 

Fracking fractured our communities, it divided us. It’s not the same. Whenever I go home, it’s like all these strangers are everywhere, and there’s a bunch of them unemployed now, because the price of oil went down and so they’re waiting for the oil boom to go again. And people that have money either are fighting with those that don’t have it, or they left because they could afford to leave. And a lot of broken families were left behind. And so women are left trying to pick up the pieces. 

Host: Another serious obstacle for women and families seeking justice is that tribal courts are highly constrained in their ability to prosecute crimes committed by non-Tribal citizens on their lands because of complex jurisdictional restrictions that disempower tribal governance and sovereignty. Again, Ozawa Bineshi Albert… 

Ozawa Bineshi Albert: This is a policy that is applied to Indian people, but is a policy of the nation of American citizens. It’s going to take a political will larger than what Indian people can hold their own. We have other really good policies, but have failed indigenous nations. Right? So, the Violence Against Women Act. The last time it was reauthorized was the very first time they included language for tribal nations to be able to prosecute someone for domestic violence, which was a huge gain for Indigenous Peoples, but 239 indigenous nations of Alaska were excluded from being able to have that same power to prosecute someone non-native in their tribal lands. 

Host: In 2013, when Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, it restored the authority of tribal courts to prosecute domestic violence crimes. But this hard-won legal authority still doesn’t apply to all Native nations or to all violent crimes, including rape or murder. 

Another catch is the onerous burden of criteria that Indigenous courts and law enforcement bodies are required to meet to try these cases. Many tribes simply don’t have the necessary resources, even with federal grants. Since VAWA was amended, just 24 out of 600 federally recognized tribes have been able to build the infrastructure required to try domestic violence cases. 

As a result, some indigenous women don’t even bother to report the crimes. The ones who do report them often find their cases passed along to the FBI, where they languish.

Casey Camp Horinek is a respected elder and leader of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. As a culture bearer, she knows well the hidden history of Native Peoples. 

Casey Camp Horinek: We had our ways in the past. If there was a kind of man around that was abusive, he was shunned and put away from the people, had to leave the people and live out on his own. The woman was taken in by other women for her healing until she became whole again. We don’t know what happened to the men, because they weren’t allowed to ever be around us again.

Now, when we have the extractive industry in our backyard, and when our sisters in South America and up in Alaska have the industry in their backyard, and we’re right up there at frontlines, we have no recourse for those that are in pain.  In Oklahoma, it is the most imprisoned place in the United States, and a good majority of those are native people or people of color or poor people. And a huge majority of them are native women who are looking for a way to go forward. 

And so our statistics have been muffled and mismanaged, and deliberately ignored since the Doctrine of Discovery, since Andrew Jackson as an Indian killer, since the time when the policy was to kill the women and kill the children because that was the policy against native people. 

Host: When we return, we hear how these powerful Native American organizers are taking action and building growing movements to end the violence against Indigenous women and girls. They say success requires knowing the true history, and engaging the ally-ship of non-Native people.

I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to “No More Stolen Sisters” on the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.

The song you just heard is a prayer for missing and murdered Indigenous women, composed by Antone George for the West Shore Canoe Family of the Lummi Nation. You can find a link for the music video and explore more Bioneers radio programs, podcasts and videos online at bioneers.org. For information on the National Bioneers Conference, please visit bioneers.org or call 1-877-BIONEER.

For Indigenous peoples of the Americas, being an unperson – dates back over five centuries to First Contact.

A year after Christopher Columbus claimed possession of the Americas, the Spanish Crown invoked the Doctrine of Discovery. It was a religious and legal edict that sanctioned European monarchies by divine right to seize lands occupied by Indigenous Peoples. The 1493 papal edict characterized Indigenous Peoples as quote, “the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors” unquote.  

From the very beginning, the colonizers branded Indigenous Peoples as sub-human and unworthy of rights.

In 1792, then U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson declared that the Doctrine of Discovery would extend from Europe to the U.S. In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted it into U.S. law by unanimous vote. 

Casey Camp Horinek: The Catholic Church decided that if they came onto any of the territories where those of us were in total touch with Wakonda and Mother Earth did not embrace Christianity, that they had the right to come into our territory that we were blessed to caretake, and take what they chose to take by just planting their little flag on there and saying ‘this is ours because you guys are savages’. That began the destruction of our peoples and our women, in particular, and that papal bull edict has yet to be rescinded and that was the beginning of what was going on here that allowed people like Columbus, that allowed the extractive industry. 

Simone Senogles: When there are societies of strong Indigenous Peoples and there are people who are colonizing and they want to disrupt and destroy those societies, they understand that one of the first things they do is attack our women.

Host: Simone Senogles, a member of the Red Lake Nation of Ojibwe, works on food sovereignty issues with the nonprofit Indigenous Environmental Network.

Simone Senogles: And so that women who typically held positions of power, of influence, of decision-making, over all spheres of indigenous life – our education, the raising of our children, our governance, our food systems, our politics, our spirituality, our families, all of those things – those women, they were disempowered, and our society suffered. And so that connection between attacks on indigenous women and the theft of our land is a very complex and yet sometimes very simple relationship. 

Host: According to Tejana historian Antonia Castañeda, within diverse indigenous cultures, quote – “Women’s power and authority were integral to, and derived from, the tribe’s core religious and spiritual beliefs, values, and traditions, which generally accorded women and men equivalent value, power, and range of practices.” Ozawa Bineshi Albert …

Ozawa Bineshi Albert: For indigenous people, matriarchal is not that women ruled, it’s not the opposite of patriarchy, but there was a balance and leadership that women carried and held—women held property or land, or held the wealth of community. 

And in colonial times, trappers, people who wanted to trade with Indian people, they didn’t want to trade with women. Right? So that shifted a power dynamic here in this country with women.

And then you move forward to when they moved Indian people to reservations in different places, and in Oklahoma where they did allotments, many of those early tribes that came, women were not given allotments. Men were deemed head of households, and if you were a woman who lost your family along the walk or along however they got you or removed you, you had nothing, unless you attached yourself to another family.  

And that kind of history keeps finding new ways and applications. It’s happened with Navajo Nation and the way that women held property with their livestock in the livestock reduction programs. It had an impact on the power that women held.

So when we talk about this, yes, we’re talking about this from a context of how patriarchy and colonialism has a relationship to this epidemic that we’re dealing with now. It is not a new practice, it is not a new policy, even. Because even in this country, during the women’s suffrage movement that didn’t include Indian women being able to vote. We didn’t get a right to vote until much, much later, in our own homeland, not deemed as citizens or entitled to have a voice in our American politic. So that’s our collective history, and not just Indigenous People.

Casey Camp Horinek: Even in those terms, if they told a story in the history book that was factual, which was rare, the Native woman was never even mentioned. And they certainly don’t mention things like, in Columbus’s diary, that 9-year-old Native girls, were the favored ones to be sought after and captured, and given for use. 

And they certainly don’t mention in the history books the stories that my aunties, sisters-in-law, mamas and grandmas told about when they came to the village of the Ponca – I have to stick to the history that I know – how they picked up our kids by the hair, by their braids, and flung them in the back of the wagons. How they separated out the women and the girls to be utilized by the soldiers during the forced removal, while the men were held at gunpoint and felt helpless. 

And they certainly didn’t mention us in the films that I watched when I was a young girl. They would pick anybody that was slightly brown to play us. And if there was a woman in that that was played, she was always very pretty, very scantily dressed, and very sexualized. The history, the herstory, was never one that had any kind of valid strong woman like the women that I knew that survived all of those things that I’m talking to you about.

I worry about you out there. I worry about the heaviness that you’re feeling right now because of these stories. We’re strong women, they’re sitting on each side of me here. They’ll help us to learn, help us to turn that corner, where we regain and re-understand our own portion of balance and how to go about that, and how to empower the men in our lives to honor, respect, and understand the sacredness of woman. 

Simone Senogles: We just recently did an exercise with some of the women in our community where we Googled ourselves, not by name but by Native American women or indigenous women, and the images that came up are just hyper-sexualized, fetishized, as Halloween costumes. And what we did in response to that, after we looked at those images of ourselves on the Internet, we made a collage of our own selves. We printed out pictures of ourselves, of our children, of our families, of our communities, of our lands and our waters, and we reminded ourselves of who we are to find ourselves. And especially our responsibility to Mother Earth, because we’ve said before, what happens to the body happens to Mother Earth. What happens to Mother Earth happens to our body. 

And so we’re reclaiming that. And that is a lot of power for us as indigenous women to remember what our roles and responsibilities are as far as taking care of Mother Earth. There’s a lot of strength in that.

And so the more that we understand our own ways of understanding even concepts around ownership, our relationship to the land, our relationship to ourselves, we are strengthened.

Host: In 2012, the hashtag #MMIW campaign took off as part of the movement to educate the general public about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. To offer people ideas for how to get involved, the nonprofit Sovereign Bodies Institute created a comprehensive toolkit for organizers. 

Ozawa Bineshi Albert: What is then the collective responsibility to this? We’re telling you a story about what’s happening, we’re doing our end of the work. And now we’re asking you: What are you going to be able to do to bring this issue to the forefront?

When VAWA comes up for reauthorization as it does from time to time, don’t throw us under the bus. When other gains need to be made, that you stand your ground and say, we’re not going without the indigenous women of Alaska. 

Bring this up with your police departments. We need citizens that look like you to say, Hey, there’s this crazy thing happening to indigenous women. What are you doing as the sheriff, as the police chief, as the mayor, as a city council? And in particular states where there’s high concentrations of Native people, call and ask your state legislatures, What are you doing about this epidemic? 

Kandi White: We have always traditionally and historically been the people that have held the homes together. We owned the homes, we owned the earth lodges, traditionally, and carried that role, which was a kind of more of a silent role. But now we’ve seen Women standing up and rising up and saying no more, we’re not going to be the silent role, we have to have a voice, we have to have our own grassroots organizations and take a stand and maybe help pick up our men that lost their warrior status when the industries came, and when colonization came. Because we don’t have a choice. We were forced into a role to pick up the pieces and to say we’re not going to allow this to happen anymore to our bodies, to our Earth, to our own children. We’re going to stand and rise up.

OTHER RESOURCES

The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women

Article from The Intercept: “A New Film Examines Sexual Violence as a Feature of the Bakken Oil Boom”

Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples: MMIW Initiative

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