Riayn Fergins | Longreads | March 2017 | 14 minutes (2,400 words)
Duluth, Minnesota was dank and barren. Ice and mounted snow covered Lake Superior, save for scattered pools of howling waves. I picked this time because the ships weren’t in and wouldn’t be for several weeks. It was, for the moment, safe to stand by that great lake and speak on the silent affliction it routinely ushers to Duluth’s shores—the very same affliction that will spread across four states and infect each Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. I was there to meet Sarah Curtiss, an esteemed Anishinaabe activist at Men As Peacemakers, who’d agreed to an on-camera interview to discuss the predatory violence on this lake and other locations throughout Indian Country, such as oil fields and pipeline camps, that threaten the lives and bodies of Indigenous women on a daily basis. She wasn’t my first documentary interview on this subject, yet my hair raised in anticipation of absorbing more horrific accounts and the immense responsibility of honoring her every word.
Curtiss shook my hand and sighed. Her exhale eased my nerves. “You wouldn’t believe some of the questions I’ve been asked,” she said. “I once had this woman, a reporter, say ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re Indian?’”
Curtiss is astute, so I would not put it past her to pop this icebreaker as a litmus quiz for non-people of color documentarians (or journalists), but for me that morning it was an invitation to an honest interview built on trust in our convergent, but different, American experiences as “other.” Her last name, Curtiss, her milk complexion and loose auburn curls were more Anglo than Disney’s Pocahontas, but questioning her blood quantum never crossed my mind. How could it? Being of color, I’d long resigned myself to what most American minorities from families spanning the skin color spectrum know: If one of the three race-defining elements (skin color, features, hair texture) is off stereotype, “Are you sure?” or “What else are you?” looms over every discussion with the uninitiated. But, Curtiss and I were initiated.
We met on a February morning as if we were sorority sisters from distant chapters executing an exclusive greeting in the form of her sigh that said, Thank God I don’t have to explain myself to you. It was unexpected, but I was grateful. We discussed her advocacy in the fight against the epidemic of missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women plaguing North America; the crisis that led her to divulge, “I do not go a month without someone I have a personal connection to passing away.” More specifically, she spoke of her prominent role combating trafficking on Lake Superior ships that pass through Minnesota’s Duluth Port—the reason for my sojourn to the frigid Midwest.
On a 17-degree day with sharp winds blistering her hands and cheeks, Curtiss stood beside the great lake that keeps sweeping away her stolen sisters. She detailed injustices against many Native women who live unrecognized lives, invisible to all but those who mean them harm—demeaning, brutal harm—and introduced me to invisibility as a handicap, rather than a privilege of gods.
* * *
Atrocities that befall Indigenous people, women and girls in particular, occur without national attention or accountability. The only exception is when such an act disrupts the financial or political gain of the influential. What is unseen is often disbelieved, which is why one might find my use of “epidemic” or “plague” to describe the widespread violence against Native women hyperbolic, if not inflammatory. When, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Indigenous women are ten times more likely to die a violent death than any other North American citizen and, specifically in Canada, three times more likely to suffer violence than non-Indigenous women while only contributing 3% to the entire population, I cannot think of more apt terms.
My understanding of this dire situation, and my disappointment in media silence, led me to begin filming a documentary, Vanished: Disappearing Indigenous American and First Nations Women nearly two years ago. The work has brought me to Minnesota, Arizona, Toronto, and Vancouver, and has put me in the company of formidable advocates, activists, survivors, tribal leaders, U.S. government officials, and law enforcement. Survivors told stories of prolapsed uteruses as a result of sadistic, brute force rape, threats to be thrown overboard from ships, and being stripped naked in the woods to be hunted with guns for sport. Activists spoke of fighting back, leaders talked protective policy and resolution, and advocates addressed healing.
The dominant experience expressed by most women was a stint of being invisible. Whether prolonged or brief, there are levels to life unseen—two of which are forced invisibility and survival passing. The former is a result of our inability to recognize Indigenous people with our eyes and practices; the latter is a response to the realization that certain spaces are not safe in which to be Native. Juana Majel Dixon, a member of the Pauma Tribe Council and National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), spoke of growing up with “Native Only” water fountains and for a time finding security in passing for Mexican. Sarah Curtiss said she knew in her childhood it was not safe to be Indigenous. At home with her Native mother and white father, she found solace in Indigenous tradition and food, but publicly she was a white girl dodging cruel students, ignorant teachers, and a cheerleading squad who found it acceptable to dress as provocative Indian princesses for Halloween.
Curtiss expounded on invisibility, attributing a lack of national media coverage and public outcry over the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) crisis to Native people being seen as either “dead or conquered or in the past and not actually in the present as living people.” It seems U.S. society only considers Native people when using them as a prop to debate land preservation, appropriation, sanitized Thanksgiving lore or, more recently, to silence critics of immigration reform. These topics hold merit, but all undoubtedly reinforce Curtiss’ belief that her people are viewed as Americana relics. It’s a convicting truth, especially considering that even the most alternative and feminist outlets have not persisted in MMIW coverage. One glaring insult was dealt by an online feminist journal—known for its pride in covering violence against women—when it chose to analyze the hit movie Gone Girl’s themes and “cool girl” monologue twice, rather than report on the concurrent disappearance of Misty Upham, an acclaimed Indigenous actress with a contested police investigation and cause of death identical to other MMIW cases.
Empathy, a practice for which all religious dogma—from do unto others to karma—is to blame, is a stealth culprit of disinterest. From childhood on, Westerners are taught that empathy—under the guise of putting oneself in another’s shoes—is the main tenet of altruism, but it has limitations. Because it places you (rather than the person in need of a comrade) and your ability to relate at the center, it can’t uphold the average American’s understanding and, thus, concern for the layered abuses against women in Indian Country. For example, please visualize the following steps:
- A loved one’s disappearance is investigated by local police, but not reported or counted in an official database.
- Local police detain the man who has either:
- Committed another violent act against your relative
- The Federal Government interferes and demands local police release the violent assailant who either murdered, raped, or otherwise abused your beloved, because he isn’t Indigenous and can’t be detained without a conviction.
- The Federal Government performs Step 3, while also insisting your local courts have zero authority to try and or convict the perp.
- Forego your community’s law enforcement, and take every rape, assault, or murder case involving a non-Indigenous perp to the Federal Government.
- The Federal Government denies pursuing your case and, according to the Government Accountability Office’s 2005-2009 data regarding Indian Country, 50% of all other cases involving non-Indigenous, violent offenders.
- The perp walks free to offend again, and again, and again, with no threat of consequence.
- Repeat Step 1.
This is the dance for seeking justice against stranger violence in Indian Country. It is, as former U.S. Attorney and Tribal Sovereignty advocate Paul Charlton put it, the equivalent of a U.S. citizen having to appeal to England for crimes committed against her on U.S. soil. We don’t know this choreography, so we struggle to care about each of its steps.
Where public concern fails, longstanding Native task forces and coalitions established throughout North America to support victims’ families, aid survivors, and shield communities from further attacks plead their plight. Facing the Canadian government’s refusal to compile a database of their missing and murdered sisters, the NWAC partnered with Sisters in Spirit to gather names from 2000 to 2008. They found 582 cases—a fraction of the true total, yet steep, considering their limited investigative resources and that First Nations women account for only 3% of the entire female population in a nation totaling fewer citizens than California.
Juana Majel Dixon, a Co-Chair of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Native Women, spoke to me of “shallow graves.” Painful experiences and personal information entrusted with Dixon helped her account for over 800 of the unmarked graves. Melissa Farley and Sarah Deer are amongst a collective of scholars and advocates (under the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research & Education nonprofit) who published The Garden of Truth report. Released in 2011, the 69-page document surveys 105 Indigenous women trafficked in Minnesota. Their findings, a result of spending hours with each prostituted woman, ranged from frequency of physical assault to resulting mental health complications.
During a time when no federal office published analyzed data on trafficked Indigenous women, Minnesota’s The Garden of Truth stood as a microcosm of the greater national dilemma. From its pages, we find the age of “entry” (enslavement) is under 18 for 39%, and the overwhelming demographic of “johns” and “pimps” (abusers) are non-Indigenous men. Of the non-Native violators, 78% are white men, many of whom (multiple advocates and survivors, including Toronto survivor and activist Bridget Perrier, attest) look to role-play John Smith-Pocahontas fantasies amongst other degrading acts. One perp, as noted in the report and reiterated in Christine Stark’s 2013 Star Tribune article, told a prostituted Indigenous woman, “I thought we killed all of you.”
Virginia Davis, NCAI policy advisor, and Majel Dixon were swift to amend the 78% statistic during their joint interview. Davis cited new data conducted by the National Institute of Justice earlier this year that revealed over 95% of abusers are non-Indigenous males. Davis reflected on her years with the Justice Department taking on cases concerning both women and children in Indian Country and the failure of laws to protect children injured in domestic disputes. It was her time at the DOJ working with Dixon at the NCAI that birthed Title IX: Safety for Indian Women, a substantial section dedicated to the specific needs of Indian Country in the 2013 Violence Against Women Act— “Vawa,” as they called it. VAWA’s passing began the process of appealing racist federal laws, such as Public Law 280 and the Indian Civil Rights Act, which hinder the autonomy and prosecutorial power of tribes. For the first time since the 1950s, tribes now have the ability to try non-Indigenous domestic abusers in their courts without federal interference. VAWA is a moon-landing step in the sovereign direction, but, in addition to upholding the three-year maximum prison term of past federal mandates, it only protects victims of domestic and interpersonal violence. Tribal courts are still barred from prosecuting non-Native traffickers, rapists, murderers and other stranger violence offenders.
Patti Larsen, a Duluth, MN activist, made her position clear on the priority of addressing stranger violence, alluding to it as among the biggest threats. Her final words to me were “Follow the oil trail, and you’ll find the girls.” She was referring to workers in the Bakken oil fields and beyond who abduct, rape, and abuse Indigenous women and girls on the land they’ve invaded. Raising this topic caused Curtiss to give hard pause before declaring: “The Violence that happens to the land and the violence that happens to our women are intricately connected.” Her wisdom resonates when examining the impending Dakota Access Pipeline.
Oil, water, land preservation, treaties, police brutality and the environment are buzz points regarding the pipeline’s construction and Sioux-led protests. Each of those elements are worthy of careful scrutiny, but a tremendous casualty of its construction has been left out the conversation. The plan for a pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois places a vast number of women and girls at risk for bold violence. This is not speculative. On October 18, 2016, Now This News published video footage of Marisa Cummings and her daughter, of the Omaha Tribe, crudely being solicited by a pipeline worker while protesting a Dakota Access construction site in Iowa. Footage clearly reveals a man calling out to her, “How much for the little girl?” His audacity, in the face of cameras, protesters, and on-hand law enforcement, conveys his awareness this violence has been long tolerated. Marisa Cummings’ inability to make law enforcement hold him accountable for violating Iowa’s street harassment laws, shows us we’ve moved beyond tolerance, and now tread open acceptance.
* * *
Documenting the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis has offered me an education of which most Americans are robbed, but all deserve. Juana Majel Dixon believes incorporating Indigenous studies into kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum is key in bridging the ignorance gap that leads to practiced indifference and the inability to personally register Native existence. With this as a nationwide standard, we’d recognize that Indigenous women are here in the present. Their story didn’t end in a trail of tears, isn’t resurrected on the 4th Thursday of November, or honored in our free spirit fashion. Their story is continuous and, more important, they’re telling it. When asked about potential overzealous outsiders attempting to speak for Native women in the fight against the MMIW crisis, Curtiss plainly said, “There’s no such thing as being a voice to the voiceless. Everyone has a voice, you just need to pass the mic.” I hold fast to this statement as my own litmus test for this project, and a reminder to stay in my lane, behind the camera.
* * *
Riayn Fergins is a New York-based writer, independent filmmaker and performing artist whose work has appeared in The Believer and The Bushwick Daily. Her past two years have been spent documenting the MMIW epidemic in the U.S. and Canada.
Editor: Sari Botton