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. Read more…