Raising Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News

“Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) are an epidemic in Washington State,” explained Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. “Washington State is 4th in the United States as having the most MMIW. I have two daughters, so I choose to not sit around and wait. Instead, I’m going to take action to try and make a better way for my children. There’s too many injustices going on with our Indigenous people. We should be the first thought, not the last thought.”

Earth-Feather coordinates the MMIW Washington group that aims to stop violence against Native women and children by advocating for social change in our communities. MMIW Washington recently worked with state legislatures to write a new state law that goes into effect in June. 

House Bill 2951 is designed to open up the reporting and data-gathering on missing Native women. By requiring Washington State Patrol to work with tribal law enforcements and the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs to conduct a study, House Bill 2951 will increase state resources that are greatly needed to combat an epidemic of MMIW.

The National Crime Information Database reported 5,712 known incidents of missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2016, while a recent report from the National Institute of Justice found that more than four out of five Native women have experienced violence in their lives. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls homicide the third-leading cause of death among Native women ages 10 to 24. And the U.S. Department of Justice has reported Native women living on reservations are ten times more likely to be murdered than those who live off the reservation.

Earth-Feather, along with many members of MMIW Washington, visited the Tulalip Reservation on May 8th as part of their eight-day march from Blaine, Washington to Olympia. The occasion allowed them to meet with community members and provided an open invitation to all to walk in prayer for their Native sisters who have been murdered and gone missing. 

“Although a short notice, Tulalip Tribes made sure the group was honored with a meal and a place to sleep,” said Board of Director Marlin Fryberg, who greeted the MMIW Washington group as they arrived on the reservation. “Special thanks to Jen Maia for educating me on what MMIW is doing in North Dakota and helping me understand more about the cause and history. Awareness and education is key. Human trafficking has taken so many of our people across the nation and Canada. God bless everyone who has taken a stance.” 

Following the prayer walk and a blessing, the MMIW of Washington made their way to the Dining Hall where a large gathering of community members waited to hear about their mission and journey. An estimated fifty-five people were in attendance, including representatives from the Board, Youth Council and police department. Many of the women attendees dressed in red to support the MMIW movement. 

After everyone was treated to a catered dinner, they listened intently to the message, first-hand experience and call for action shared by their hosted guests. 

“As a people we must uplift our women who are at the bottom of the so-called totem pole because when our life givers are able to heal and become strong, then all our nations start to heal,” expressed Earth-Feather during her heartfelt, key-note address. “We come from warrior people, we still are warriors. To our young men: you are protectors. Our women and children are sacred and need to be protected.”

Tribal member Deborah Parker shared her Woman Warrior Song, which comes from First Nations sisters in British Columbia, and gifted several speakers with custom-made MMIW flags. The evening concluded with the MMIW of Washington members offering song and prayer for those have gone missing, those have lost love ones to murder, and for any women seeking strength. 

Women’s March 2018

Deborah Parker, Tulalip tribal member and committed cultural advocate, gives an opening speech at the Women’s March in Olympia.

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News; photos courtesy Theresa Sheldon and Matt Remle

On January 21, 2018, tens of thousands filled the streets of Seattle and Olympia to participate in the Women’s March. Many heard a rallying cry to action that Saturday morning, which coincided with the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The Women’s March is a women-led movement bringing together people of all genders, races, cultures, political affiliations, and backgrounds to affirm our shared humanity and pronounce a bold message of resistance and self-determination. Occurring in its second consecutive year, the highly anticipated Women’s March 2.0 created a powerful campaign to ignite thousands of activists and new leaders.

Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes Board of Director, (second from left) at the Women’s March.

Indigenous women led the marches in Seattle and Olympia, highlighting the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). The Indigenous presence, featuring hundreds of proud Natives wearing their traditional tribal regalia supporting families of MMIW victims in attendance, sought to bring awareness to the widespread cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and colonial gender-based violence in the United States and Canada.

“To my dear relatives, welcome to the Coash Salish territory. Thank you all for being here,” stated Deborah Parker, Tulalip tribal member and committed cultural advocate, in her opening speech. “We stand together united. We stand together with one heart, one mind. We will be singing the Women’s Warrior Song that comes from our First Nations sister’s in British Columbia. During the last verse we raise our fist in solidarity. We raise our fist and we honor the missing and murdered indigenous women from all over these lands. We remember our lost sisters, daughters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers and cousins.”

Indigenous women leading the march in Seattle.

Women’s March 2.0 marked one full year of the U.S. under Trump’s administration, which coincidentally was also the day the federal government shut down because of a budget impasse. The last 365-days has been a year filled with battles over women’s rights, immigration, and health care issues, but also gave rise to the #MeToo social media movement that aimed to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.

“Absolutely amazing organizing Native women did across Turtle Island in bringing forth the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and bringing forward the families and loved ones of MMIW for support, healing, encouragement,” described Lakota tribal member and local Native American activist, Matt Remle. “I personally witnessed many tears shed, hugs shared, songs of encouragement sung and good medicine put forward. It was pretty emotional when the families who have had loved ones murdered or go missing were brought on stage to be acknowledged and lifted up. That’s how it should be, supporting, uplifting, encouraging and helping however best one can. That’s powerful and I have absolute love for our [women] across Turtle Island for doing this.”

Across the nation, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in city streets to peacefully demonstrate the power of women and showcase a desire for change. The issues, from reproductive rights to better representation of women of color to awareness for missing and murdered Indegeous women, were as varied as the sign-waving, pink-hat-wearing attendees. However, the​ ​implication was clear: women are poised to take power and they intend to.

Klayton Sheldon urged his mother, Theresa, to join the march.

“Tulalip Tribes was well represented in today’s Women’s March that was dedicated to our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Thankful to see leadership so active,” said Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes Board of Director, who was urged by her young son, Klayton, to attend the march. “This is the weekend we are remembering and commemorating our 1855 Point Elliott Treaty which was signed on January 22. It’s only appropriate that we take the time to acknowledge our ancestors and those who are still negatively impacted by all the forced federal policies that did not work, but caused great harm. We are resilient and we are healing and growing!”