The forgotten ones
In the lead up to International Women’s Day in March 2020, the women of the Zapatista Army – a radical Indigenous liberation movement that has autonomously controlled Chiapas, Mexico, since 1994 – released a letter in support of global strikes and protests calling for an end to violence against women. The letter, addressed to “women who struggle in Mexico and around the world,” acknowledged the increasing violence against all women and highlighted that “no woman of any age, class, political affiliation, color, race, or religion is safe.” In interconnected solidarity, the Indigenous collective behind the statement went on to write that, “Not even (rich or famous women) are safe, because the violence that kidnaps, disappears, or kills us often comes from family members, friends, and acquaintances.”
The letter holds relevance regarding recent headlines around the country devoted to the tragic fate of popular travel vlogger, Gabby Petito, whose remains were found in a Wyoming national forest. The mysterious circumstances around her death, ruled a homicide, have led to a manhunt for her partner, Brian Laundrie. As a result, the desperate vultures of pop culture and aspiring social media influencers have taken this grim event to new Maury-Povichian lows.
On top of turning tragedy into a spectacle, this sensationalism has had the effect of overshadowing the many ongoing cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women, not to mention other women of color and those from the LGBTQ+ community.
In the same state of Wyoming, at least 710 Indigenous people have been reported missing between 2011-20, according to a 2021 report by the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Task Force. Within that figure, 466 of those reported cases – about 50% – were Indigenous women. Concomitantly across the United States and Canada, the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization that collects research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people, documented 4,293 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirit peoples (or more commonly referred to in the acronym MMIWG2). Of that total, 2,306 of those cases are in the United States. Even further, 58% of those cases are homicides, with 713 of those victims being girls 18 and under, and the average age of victims being 27 years old.
More than just statistics and acronyms, these are women and girls with lives just as vibrant and dynamic as someone like Gabby Petito, and their names and stories deserve just as much national attention. Such as 59-year-old Cecelia Finona – a Diné woman and New Mexico resident. Finona had been missing since 2019 and, tragically, in July of this year, her remains were found in Nevada, with her partner linked to her kidnapping and murder.
Ella Mae Begay, a 62-year-old Diné woman from Sweetwater, Ariz., has been missing since June of this year. Along with being a matriarch and caregiver in the Sweetwater community, Begay was also known for her outstanding rug weaving. As the search continues, her spirit rests in the memory of those who had the fortune of knowing and being loved by her.
In 2004, near Begay’s community of Sweetwater, the personal belongings of Tiffany Reid, 16 years old, were discovered a few weeks after she was reported missing. For a time, Reid grew up in my neighborhood on the Navajo reservation of Shiprock. I can recall the shock and confusion over the news of a classmate gone missing, and I can recall the feeling of hope that she would return or be found quickly. To this day, she is still missing, and some days I don’t know what to do with this hope I still hold onto.
In Toni Jensen’s powerful memoir, Carry, the Métis writer reflects on the various forms of violence she and other women encounter in their everyday lives. Whether navigating around abusive male family members, aggressive male colleagues or the threatening men armed with guns while Jensen and a friend are out on an afternoon hike, she recounts the gradual transition in how she perceives men. As a result of the casual, banal violence on display all around her, the distinct category of “men like these” simply melts into “men” in general for Jensen.
She also took part in the Standing Rock pipeline protests in 2016, and she connects the violent state response toward Indigenous water protectors to the daily threat of violence imposed on Indigenous women. “The taking of force of our land,” Jensen writes, “has been twinned with the taking by force of our bodies, of our most vulnerable bodies – our women, our children.”
Echoing that statement, in their manifesto of a book, The Red Deal, the Native collective known as The Red Nation addresses the crisis of violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit peoples and connect it to the necessity of ending colonial violence and exploitation. The authors write, “The most common form of violence is domestic violence, and source of the violence is heteropatriarchy.” In confronting the violence innate to the prevailing order of settler state heteropatriarchy, The Red Deal calls for a multipronged movement in order to achieve a decolonized society, devoid of the everyday violence that threatens women.
Similarly, in their call for an end to gender and sexual violence, the women of the Zapatista Army diagnosed the root of their pain existing in “the racist, exploitative, repressive, thieving, anti-human patriarchal capitalist system.”
Up north, sprawled across the province of British Columbia, there exists the infamous “Highway of Tears” – a 465-mile stretch of highway where there has been a disproportionate number of Indigenous females reported missing or murdered. And yet, as numerous women continue to face such threats along and beyond that sprawling road, it is no stretch to see the Highway of Tears as existing everywhere, trailing through North America and beyond, leading into bordertowns where more violence and exploitation awaits. And it is understandable why Indigenous movements such as the Zapatistas and The Red Nation locate the root of violence against women in the status quo.
For the numerous missing and murdered Indigenous women and their grieving families, the fatigue of time and the cold indifference can wear down the prospects of a hopeful outcome. But the imperative for justice and closure still needs to be shouted like sirens to honor the missing and murdered.
And as mainstream society continues to relegate the suffering of Indigenous peoples to the margins, grassroots Indigenous movements, primarily led by Native women who do not receive enough credit for their strength and spirit, continue to do the hard work of raising awareness of those missing and murdered while engaged in a struggle for decolonized liberation. And it is only in such borderless solidarity with these movements that we as a whole can actualize an end to such gender-based violence.