“We want a world where people are supported, where our people are not made forcibly vulnerable to violence, and where interventions occur long before someone goes missing,” says Kelly Hayes. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Indigenous organizers Kelly Hayes and Morning Star Gali talk about how abolitionists are addressing the crisis of missing and murdered women, girls and two-spirit people.
Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about solidarity, justice work, and how we organize for change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. This week, we are going to talk about a particularly challenging topic — the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and relatives. We are also going to discuss the movement to end these deaths and disappearances. Some people know this movement by the acronym MMIW, which stands for “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,” or MMIWG2S, which denotes the inclusion of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, or MMIR, which stands for “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.” In our discussion of that work today, we are going to zero in on how some Indigenous prison abolitionists are organizing against the mass disappearance of Native relatives. Because there is some really exciting work happening there, and I believe that in order to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, we have to confront the carceral system’s ongoing role in the situation — which is multi-layered and devestating.
Whether or not one believes that police and the carceral system should exist, it is undeniable that these entities do not serve Native people. Indigenous people, including Native youth, are overrepresented in prisons and jails and are disproportionately subjected to “legal supervision” and other forms of surveillance. The number of Native people in U.S. jails rose 85 percent between 2000 and 2019. That number does not include jails on tribal lands, where the number of people incarcerated increased by 61 percent between 2000 and 2018, even though the number of Native people residing on those lands has decreased slightly during that same period. Many of us remember the stories of Sarah Lee Circle Bear and Andrea High Bear, who both died premature deaths while incarcerated. In 2015, Sarah died in a jail cell while pleading for medical attention, while police officers scolded her to “knock it off.” She was pregnant at the time of her death. In 2020, Sarah’s sister-in-law Andrea died of COVID-19 while in federal custody, four weeks after giving birth while on a ventilator. Researcher Mathew Harvey has stated that, “Native American females are 38 times as likely to die at the hands of police relative to their white counterparts, where Native American males are 14 times as likely.”
When it comes to family monitoring, as a tentacle of the carceral system, Native people don’t fare any better. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in her recent book Torn Apart, “Black and Indigenous families are the most likely to be disrupted by child welfare authorities.” Roberts also noted that, “About 15 percent of Indigenous children and 11 percent of Black children can expect to enter foster care before their eighteenth birthday.” In light of these practices, it is unsurprising that when someone who is not working in the direct service of the carceral state causes the death or disappearance of an Indigenous person, the system is not helpful.
The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center reports that, “In numerous cases, medical examiners, coroners, and prosecutors have wrongfully reported the cause of death of American Indian women as undetermined, possible suicide, or hypothermia in order to quickly close the case.” One example is Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, whose grandmother was told she died from a drug overdose. A toxicology report revealed Kaysera showed no indication of drug use, but since the County Coroner had cremated Kaysera’s body without her family’s permission, no further inquiry was possible. Parents of missing Indigenous women and girls are frequently told by police that their daughters are probably “out partying.” In cases where a parent’s worst fears are confirmed, the system’s unsympathetic posture is unaltered. In 2015, a police officer told Allison Highwolf’s mother, “Just because your daughter died, the world doesn’t revolve around you.”
Some work within the movement to end the disappearance of Indigenous relatives is focused on reforming the manner in which cases are investigated and prosecuted, but today, we are going to talk about some of the other work that’s happening. This is a big movement, and it does include people like me, who do not believe these systems can be reformed, because they are functioning as they always have and as they were intended to. But we don’t actually have to agree on prison or police abolition to understand the value of the organizing that’s being done within an abolitionist framework around this issue. In fact, I think we all have a lot to learn from the life-giving work that people like my friend Morning Star Gali are doing in response to this crisis.
Morning Star is a member of the Ajumawi band of the Pit River Nation. She is a lifelong Indigenous activist and the project director of Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples. Morning Star is also a tribal water organizer for Save California Salmon. It’s hard to summarize the scope of Morning Star’s contributions, but today we are going to talk about her work supporting Indigenous families who have been impacted by the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives.
Morning Star Gali: So the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, girls, two-spirit relatives, we use “relatives” to be all-encompassing of all genders across the spectrums. We’ve been recognizing that this isn’t anything new although there’s newfound attention that’s being paid to it at this time. This has been ongoing since times of colonization that in the exchange of stolen land for Indigenous women’s bodies, we’ve recognized that this has been a tool of colonization to steal, uproot, and through outright violence and murder targeting women, children, two-spirit relatives as a way of claiming that land, of claiming those resources in that extractive process.
And so some of the work that we do through Indigenous justice is that we support and hold space in a way that is survivor-centered, in a way that is trauma-informed through using a decolonial lens and an abolitionist framework. People may not recognize it in that sense, but that we are supporting the families in however they are navigating their healing process and what justice means for them, what healing looks like for them. So that doesn’t necessarily look like using U.S. prosecutorial methods against our own relatives. We also recognize the MMIW epidemic in terms of our stolen relatives that are currently incarcerated. We also recognize that the MMIW movement is one of not just dismantling systems, but that we’re also building. We’re building a movement of healing. We’re building a movement of supporting our relatives through these traumatic events and through this crisis.
And so that’s really the key piece. That’s the shift for me is where we’re focusing on the building and the strength and centering the voices and uplifting the stories and sharing those in a very human way in terms of recognizing that one of the barriers that we come across, especially in the media is that there’s a lot of finger pointing. There’s a lot of, what did they do? Primarily, What did she do to get herself into this situation? And so it’s shifting that narrative to say like, no, every individual deserves to be treated with respect and humanely and to have their story told in a way that is larger than all of us to recognize the systemic injustices that occurred and the way that these systems have failed our relatives all around.
KH: We know that the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous relatives are undercounted, due to police failing to classify people as Indigenous, and because official reporting ranges from inadequate to nonexistent across the U.S. and Canada. Local data, where available, is routinely alarming. In Montana, for example, Indigenous people account for about 30 percent of all missing persons cases, even though Native people only comprise about 6 percent of the state’s population. At the federal level, numbers that have been recorded by the FBI and the CDC are wildly inconsistent, and suggest a general trend of underreporting. That makes data justice work around this issue so important, which we’ll circle back to in a bit.
I think a lot of people who are aware that there’s a movement around the cause of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women probably imagine a lot of organizing that revolves around how cases are prosecuted, and probably don’t picture much else. Court support for families, appeals for investigations and prosecutions, and legislative struggles over jurisdiction are all part of the larger movement. But to address violence within our own communities, organizers have to foster healing and help build community bonds. Systems of support help us reduce vulnerability within our communities, and community bonds create the potential for communal solutions. So I asked Morning Star if she could describe some of that other work — that people may not be imagining — that has no connection to a courtroom.
MSG: The other work is actually the majority of the work that we do. Especially in the midst of the pandemic, it’s constantly supporting through financial measures and resources, helping to ensure that when homes, families homes, PG&E have their electricity shut off, that we can help them in getting it back on. It’s helping in terms of when they share their stories, we don’t want to create a financial burden for them. And it already can be traumatic enough. And it is this double-edged sword at times because we are supporting them through their grieving and healing process and every time that they share their story of their loved one, it is traumatic. It does reopen those wounds for them.
And so it’s providing everything from access to ceremony, we have supported through providing ribbon skirts and traditional regalia so that they feel comfortable in terms of attending the cultural events. And whether it’s a round dance or a round house ceremony, ensuring that they feel comfortable to attend. So gifting them with skirts and traditional foods as a part of healing their bodies from these traumatic experiences. And so it’s access to our traditional foods of salmon, acorn, deer meat. It looks like physically driving them at times to events. So not only ensuring that they have enough gas money and lodging, but even transportation can be a barrier overall. So having someone to drive them to go speak on their loved one’s behalf.
This past summer, we helped to support some of our relatives that were in need of some recovery services, some drug and alcohol treatment. So it meant physically driving to their home and helping them to pack up their home and ensuring that their belongings were in storage and paying for a storage unit for six to nine months so that they were reassured that their belongings are there, they’re safe. And so supporting them through the recovery process. So ensuring that they get to their appointments, ensuring that they just have that support that they need. And it’s beautiful to see the outcome of that. It’s beautiful to see our relatives that are newly clean and newly sober and able to just continue on in their healing process in that way. It’s ensuring that the children during holiday times and birthdays have gifts that their loved one that was stolen or murdered… Many times, it’s gifts for the children that have had their mom taken from them.
It is just all of those different ways that we are able to support. And we have to be careful, there is a fine line. We’re not a social services agency. We understand that many times those just create additional barriers in terms of providing resources and they’re just often given the runaround. And so at times we’re able to make small cash grants and just saying, like, “Hey, here’s some support to help you keep your lights on. Here’s some support to ensure that you have access to healthy food for the week. Here’s some support to ensure that you have gas money or if you’re in need of an oil change.” It looks like all of those different factors that are small, but they make a world of difference when you don’t have that and when you really are just trying to survive from day to day.
I will share just because we just got the announcement, we have been developing a pilot project through the Commission on the Status of Women for the City of San Francisco. And so they had asked in terms of like if resources weren’t an issue or funding was not an issue, what is it that you would like to see happen? And I said, I would like to see an Indigenous women and two-spirit survivor a guaranteed income/universal basic income pilot launched for our Native peoples.
Again, being in San Francisco, which is extremely expensive providing a commitment of 10 months of a guaranteed income would ensure that those that are in transitional housing that they could be in permanent housing, which means that they would be able to have their children under their roof again. It means that they wouldn’t have to stress about whether it’s children, pets, loved ones, just being able to meet all of their bills if they were under for the month. So that will be launching later this fall, I believe, and it’s just one more piece that we’re able to support in that way and support the healing of our relatives and of our communities.
KH: Talking about abolition, in connection with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, can bring up a lot of emotions for people. Many of us have lost people, and in addition to longing for some kind of reckoning, some people also have safety concerns to work through. Critics of abolition will sometimes insist that abolitionists must not know what it’s like to be victimized, or to endure the murder of a loved one. In my experience, this is almost never the case.
MSG: One of my close friends and sisters, Jessica Alva, she was murdered by her partner back in 2019, in her home, in front of her children. It was staged to look like she had done this to herself, and she had no history of self-harm, no history of suicide ideation. And he had served a number of years within the state system. He had been released and was on parole. And it really was challenging to navigate that within our community because there were many community members that did feel torn. They were navigating the family trauma and response and also how it was impacting us as a community, the larger impacts of that.
And it was Jessica’s mom who really took the lead in saying that she forgave him, that she forgave him. She did not have that space to hold onto that hard and hold on to that anger, that she had known him since elementary school, since he was in elementary school. They had been childhood friends for that long since they were little. And so recognizing that this wasn’t going to be something she was going to hold on to, and that she wasn’t going to hold against his family in recognizing that our families and communities are so close knit.
And that’s not to say that… Of course we took precautionary measures when he was released. We helped to support the family moving, and especially for her younger children, like ensuring their safety and that they would not be close by when he was released. But it’s navigating just all those sensitive issues and topics and recognizing that at times that these can be our own community members and that we have to figure out, as difficult as it may be, how to continue to have a sense of justice and balance within our tribal communities.
KH: I think it’s really important to note that, in the case of Morning Star’s friend Jessica, who was tragically killed, we saw something unusual, which was a conviction, but ultimately, that person was released, and it was the community, not the system, that took action to make sure that vulnerable people were protected. That is the standard reality that Native people live with — even if the system arrests someone who has harmed you or your family, you cannot rely on the system to protect you, because protecting you was never its intended function.
Supporting families in search of justice sometimes means showing up for people who are engaging with the criminal legal system, while knowing it will most likely disappoint them. Morning Star highlighted the connection and overlap between the experiences of Indigenous families impacted by murders and disappearances and the disappointment families and activists often experience when demanding charges against police officers who kill.
MSG: I think one of my first experiences was a year prior to Oscar Grant being murdered at Fruitvale Station. We have a young community member, Andrew [“Moppin-Buckskin”]. He was a father of a young baby with one on the way. His grandmother, Justine Moppin, was very instrumental in the Alcatraz Occupation from 1969 to 1971. His grandmother was really a pillar within our community. This young man was shot in the back by Oakland police for a $433 ticket. He had a warrant out for BART fare evasion. It was not caught on video in the way that the Oscar Grant murder was, but it was very similar circumstances. It was a year prior. It was on New Year’s Eve. The family was not even properly informed. They had watched the news and learned of their son’s murder by Oakland PD by watching the news.
And so that New Year’s Eve of 2007, that was really my first experience in helping to lead the organizing efforts and helping to support the family and saying yes, it’s absolutely your decision and fully within your rights to go after OPD. In this case, the officer, Hector Jimenez, had also shot another young black man named Jody Woodfox. There was a history of him targeting young men of color and outright shooting them. And so navigating the systems at the time knowing that we were pretty sure that even though we were following the processes and supporting the family, it did end up in that disappointment. The family sued OPD, they sued the officer and nothing really came of it in the way that the family sought justice.
Of course, they, again, really pointed the finger at Andrew and his actions at the time. And so I think I’ve always just kind of held that lesson with me, and it was one of my most difficult moments personally in supporting his family, and then having to go back to his mom and say, yes, unfortunately, there’s not going to be any sort of measurable win in this situation. And it was extremely defeating. And at the same time, we recognize that these systems are not designed to serve justice for our peoples.
And so kind of using that example as we navigate through the systems with the MMIW and MMIR families that we know that in some of these cases, it was one of my close friends and relatives, Yogi McGarva. He was murdered by a non-native person in his home on his tribal lands. He was hit in the back of his head. He didn’t see it coming. He had been going to… He’s a two-spirit relative. He had been going and actively reaching out for DV services and resources and this non-native individual that has now been charged, the Modoc County Sheriff’s Office came in and said like, “Oh, we were there immediately after he was murdered.” They felt like they did a thorough investigation, collected all the evidence they needed, and then of course it comes back a year later that they actually didn’t do a very good job in collecting evidence. They now want to give him a plea deal.
And so it’s again, supporting the family through that and not sharing our personal opinions, but supporting them through their efforts to seek justice for their loved ones and their efforts to heal as a family and decide what that looks like for them. That’s absolutely their right to self-determination, but also just being there for them and being there to support them when we know that they’re not necessarily going to get the outcome that they’re looking for.
KH: I think, when a lot of people hear about police or prison abolition, they feel like the focus is on the actions of aggrieved people, and what they choose to do in unthinkable situations where they’re afraid or have lost someone. In reality, organizers like Morning Star and I are not making judgments about any of that. But we do know what those systems are structured to do to our peoples, and what they do in practice, and we want to build a world where people don’t see that violence as their only recourse, because it’s not saving us. We want a world where people are supported, where our people are not made forcibly vulnerable to violence, and where interventions occur long before someone goes missing. In their efforts to build that world, Morning Star and her co-organizers help families impacted by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relative crisis to cope and create new relations that make their struggles more survivable.
One of the things that I find exciting about the mutual aid practiced by Morning Star’s group is that it’s a kind of reclamation of Indigenous relations. Native peoples did not historically live the kind of atomized lives that this society perpetuates. Interdependency and reciprocity are fundamental to many of our cultures. The isolating nature of this society, coupled with its systemic violence, makes us vulnerable. But by practicing care together, Morning Star and her co-organizers are cultivating the kind of connections that ultimately make communities safer. I have also been inspired by the prayer walks and runs my friends have organized around this issue. The confidence and solidarity these events seem to foster among participants is incredibly moving. When we talked, Morning Star explained how prayer walks and runs build power within the movement.
MSG: It’s building relationships, it’s helping to foster that sense of belonging, of leadership. I’ve watched some of our sister survivors just thrive when they are provided with that support, when their basic needs are met in that way. Last spring, we held an event, it was a river walk. It was a prayer walk from the nearby Sutter’s Landing and we walked a couple of miles to Sutter’s Fort. Honestly, we were organizing for it and I was like, “Okay, 8:00 in the morning on a Saturday morning, we’ll get maybe 50 people to attend. Maybe we’ll get 200 people throughout the day.” And we had 12 to 15 MMIW, MMIR families that we had invited. And again, offering that support of food and lodging and shelter for their time there.
Actually, I show up in the morning with the little breakfast burritos that I had rolled at home and we show up and there are 600 people waiting for us to start. And it was beautiful and it was just incredible. We had local Miwok youth, local Native youth, that moment when they were leading this march of 600 relatives holding signs and banners calling for justice for their loved ones and having the youth lead the march and they were chanting, “No More Stolen Sisters” and various chants as we were walking up to Sutter’s Fort, which really is the symbol within the Sacramento capital area, it is the symbol of genocide and enslavement for California Native peoples with our Nisenan and Miwok relatives that built the fort walking to the fort and chanting, “Whose land? Miwok land.”
And I was just in tears. It was just a moment of just so much incredible strength and resilience for our peoples. And we were able to feed 600 people for free that day. Luckily there was enough food and every family was able to have the time to share their story, to have that platform to share their story about their loved ones. We had traditional healers that were there to help to offer our traditional medicines and smudge them off after they shared their stories and then they were able to connect and visit with one another in that process. And it was done in a very grassroots way. We didn’t have any large amount of funding for it. We just really came together as individuals within our community and volunteered our time and effort to be there and to support the families. And that mutual aid piece that you mentioned, it really is so key in terms of like let’s show up. What do folks need? What do we need in terms of making this happen? And it was really just such a beautiful moment.
KH: There is a deep connection between environmental violence, such as fossil fuel extraction, and violence against Indigenous people. We see that connection in very material terms, when “man camps” — which are clusters of corporate-owned, temporary housing for fossil fuel workers— become hubs for sexual violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. In Dickinson, North Dakota, an oil boom led to a 300 percent increase in sex crimes. Globally, sites of fossil fuel extraction are frequently linked to violence against Indigenous people.
MSG: It’s definitely in correlation with one another. And I think that it goes back to, again, the way that violence against women was used as a tool of colonialism, that it was used as a tool of genocide, that we are seeing that now even in naming our sacred lands and waters, our sacred places that we go to pray, like naming those as resources, right? Those are cultural resources. Those are resources that contain the oil and lithium, and whether it’s the quarry mine, all of these areas that it’s whatever it is that can be dug up and made a profit from. We have witnessed that and we have put ourselves on the front lines to defend Mother Earth. And so recognizing that when we talk about resource extraction, when we talk about these pipelines that are being built, and it is that violence against Mother Earth that is being committed in the same way that violence against women, two-spirit relatives, children is committed as a way to continue on these larger projects of colonialism, of white supremacy. It’s how it is all upheld.
And so I think that it is, again, that decolonization process of narrative shifting, of recognizing that this isn’t… It’s a huge fight here in California around our water and the commodification of our water that we currently have… It’s been over a number of years now that 97 percent to 98 percent of our juvenile salmon populations are not surviving. I just did an interview this week where we had invited the [California] State Water [Resources Control] Board onto the call and they did not want to discuss an impending fish kill, but yet they will continue to divert water to farmers, they will continue to divert water to Big Ag knowing that our fish are barely surviving just as we are barely surviving.
And so I talk about just the realities and the relationship between our salmon relatives that are currently incarcerated, that they are not allowed to swim up river, that they physically have dams that are keeping them caged and keeping them from fulfilling their life’s purpose of spawning and how that relates to our relatives that are currently incarcerated, to our ancestors that are incarcerated in the University of California basements and held captive there, that they are not repatriated back to their original resting places.
And so there is a connection between all of it. And there is that deep connection between what is viewed as this resource extraction and just a way in terms of a profit being made off of all of it, right? We see that with the air, the water, the land, all of it, and in terms of how that relates to us as Indigenous peoples where we have those values that are very different, where we recognize the relationship and the balance that we have and don’t just view them or use them as a commodity.
KH: It is deeply important that we make these connections — including the connection between man camps and the police violence that fossil fuel extraction projects bring. Because these forces are inseparable. As Morning Star said, this is the colonial project. Amid the violence of fossil fuel extraction, Indigenous women and girls are routinely targeted for sexual violence. These attacks are what Ruth Wilson Gilmore might call “delegated” violence, because, rather than maintaining a so-called monopoly on violence, a system can simply allow certain actors to perpetrate crimes in an undisturbed manner. The state’s lack of interference becomes a de facto permit. There is no stated collaboration required to cement these dynamics. They are assumed and free-flowing. The stated and the unstated, which together, form the character and impact of a system.
Indigenous people, and any of their supporters, who attempt to resist the extractive projects experience a whole spectrum of violence, which may include sexual violence, torture, captivity and more. In some countries, the murder of Indigenous environmental activists is not uncommon. All of this violence is connected. And I think it’s important that we assess the way these trends play out globally. Imprisoned activists experience the extraction of time, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and I recently discussed. As capitalists attempt to stripmine a dying planet for resources, and Indigenous people defend land and water, we have to understand the patterns at work.
Unfortunately, that old saying that, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, often applies to how oppressed people view their own condition. We sometimes view the conditions that generate harm as fixed, and consider life-giving interventions that might prevent violence as undoable, or even unthinkable. We only see the hammer because we have been robbed of so many other tools. But carceral violence is fully legitimized and, theoretically, it’s something the state is still willing to offer when we’re in a jam. Faced with this non-choice, a lot of people will look at the hammer and think, well, this is the tool we have, so how can we use it to stay safe? And that can lead to some really harmful thinking, because policing, incarceration and family separation, via the family regulation system, cannot be shaped into a life-giving apparatus that makes us all safer. All of these things exist in opposition to our well-being. And when we forget that, we can inadvertently cause more harm. For example, some people who are concerned about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives think crackdowns on sex work will lead to fewer people being harmed. When, in reality, those crackdowns not only inflict immediate, direct harm, but also make Native people increasingly vulnerable to violence over time. Morning Star emphasized the need to talk frankly about sex work and decriminalization in our communities.
MSG: I think we have to be willing to have very truthful and very honest conversations. We need to not be afraid, to shy away from the topic and that de-criminalization of sex work is key, that it should not at all even… We should not even be in this situation where folks are being persecuted in terms of having charges, in terms of records being used when they are applying for jobs and applying for housing and knowing that they have this on their record and that they won’t qualify when it comes to those housing and job opportunities.
We actually just met with … the State of California has a Native American affairs tribal liaison and we actually met directly with the attorney general and told him that, directly told him that sex work needs to be decriminalized. That it is absolutely one of the barriers in terms of our folks getting out of situations that are violent and unsafe and being able to apply for jobs and housing and adequate resources on their own. And it was a round table of various DV organizations and they all said the same thing like this needs to happen now in this moment. And I think that just the shame and the stigma that goes along with that, like we have to address that and we have to address what that looks like within our communities, within these various organizational and institutional circles and address that.
I was just in Guatemala recently for a conference, the International Indian Treaty [Council] Conference, and that was one of the issues that was brought up with the women’s caucus, but it was also around child brides and the issues of not forcing young girls and young women to marry at these young ages. And I think that just like asserting those rights for us as individual peoples, the right to self-determination and however that looks like for them, that that needs to be established and that needs to be strengthened within our own communities.
KH: A lot of the controversy around sex work in Native communities comes from concerns around the well-being of Native girls. But carceral violence against sex workers does not offer protection for Native youth. If we want to protect young people, we have to examine the ways the system perpetrates and prefigures the very scenarios it claims to address. The Sovereign Bodies Institute is a nonprofit that has been mapping and counting cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. According to the institute, nearly 60 percent of the cases they encountered were homicides and 31 percent involved girls 18 and younger. Of the 713 cases of Indigenous girls 18 and under that the group evaluated, 70 percent involved victims who were living in the foster care system when they went missing. So we are looking at a system that disappears children, and then renders them even more vulnerable to other forms of disappearance — from incarceration to kidnapping and murder. Similar trends in Canada, which run to even greater extremes, have been dubbed the “foster care to missing or murdered pipeline.”
The Sovereign Bodies Institute has found that children of missing and murdered Indigenous people are often placed in foster care, even when a loving family member wants custody.
As we have discussed previously on the show, Native children should be protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was meant to interrupt the destruction of Native communities via family policing, but ICWA is under threat and under-enforced. To understand the precarity of Native relatives who go missing or who are murdered, we need to understand the ways people are being abused and made vulnerable by the system. Attacks on Indigenous autonomy are continuous and have been since the onset of colonization.
MSG: ICWA is in jeopardy, Roe v. Wade is in jeopardy. Where there’s already a lack of access, ICWA only applies if the child is either enrolled or eligible for enrollment, but there is such a depletion of resources within ICWA departments that the reality is that a lot of children fall through the cracks. We just recently held a series of webinars on MMIW and human trafficking and talking about the intersections. And so the foster care system is a huge intersection when it comes to the trafficking of Native children and young Native peoples.
And so recognizing that, again, these systems aren’t designed for us, but that they will constantly fail in terms of doing their due diligence of recognizing that a Native child is eligible for enrollment of placing them within a Native home. There’s just so much to it. I say that 100 percent of our youth are considered system impacted, 100 percent of Native youth are considered system impacted due to the history of colonialism, due to the history of boarding schools and the foster care system and we just see how evident that is today in terms of the number of youth that do fall through those cracks and do not receive the cultural healing and culturally relevant therapy services that they need.
KH: For those who feel moved to do so, there are opportunities on the horizon to join and support this movement for Indigenous survival and self-determination.
MSG: On May 5 coming up there is a national day of awareness for our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, but we really need to take it a step further. That it’s not just about awareness anymore, that we know that Native women are killed at 10 times the rate as non-Native women, especially on tribal lands. For the most part, we know the statistics and the need to address this epidemic for what it is, but that this really is a time of action, that we need to take action in supporting our relatives in their call for justice. And so that can look like so many different ways of advocacy. So if you are not hearing or reading stories locally where you are about the missing and murdered Indigenous relatives, contact your local news sources and ask them why they aren’t reporting on it, but ask them why they’re only reporting about Native peoples in the past tense.
I think in navigating a lot of this work that there’s just like some very fundamental basics that people are not aware of so that you don’t need to wait 48 hours to report a missing person’s case. That supporting through that crucial time, through that first 48 hours really makes such a difference in terms of hopefully finding your loved one or community member alive. And so we’re just one voice in one small group that is doing what we can throughout Northern California through supporting the families that we are in that relationship with and are directly supporting in that way, but that there is a lot that’s needed out there in Indian country and beyond in terms of addressing this crisis for all of us, for all of us to be able to heal, for all of us to be able to feel that we are living in healthy and safe environments.
KH: In her essay, “From Breaking Silence to Community Survival,” featured in the book Beyond Survival, Audrey Huntley wrote that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relative movement could be traced back to the “grannies and aunties” of Vancouver, who began holding ceremony back in 1991. Huntley co-founded the Toronto-based organization No More Silence — a network that supports activists, researchers and communities working to stop the murders and disappearances of Indigenous relatives in Canada. Huntley created the video, “Not Just Another Case: When Your Loved One Has Gone Missing or Been Murdered.” In her essay in Beyond Survival, Huntley wrote of the video, “Folks share important information on how to find someone while respecting Two-Spirit people’s pronouns and chosen names, best practices for dealing with police, and surviving a trial.” Huntley’s work is a powerful reminder that — even though this crisis may conjure emotions that might seem incompatible with prison and police abolition — people have long been managing these tragedies in spite of the police.
Like Morning Star, I would never be prescriptive and tell a family who has lost someone that they should not be demanding a prosecution. I do not tell people what to want in those ways, but I do know what the system actually does and does not do. I also know that people have been out here, holding ceremony, sharing food, building community, and in some cases, finding bodies and solving murders themselves, for many years, because this system does not serve us.
When we imagine solutions, we need to understand the context, history, and the role of the U.S. government and corporations in perpetuating this violence. We need to make connections between the “delegated violence” of Indigenous relatives disappearing and the similarly “delegated violence” of young Black women disappearing in large numbers. We need to make connections between the carceral system and how its many tentacles devastate, demean and disappear Indigenous people. We need to talk about how the foster system pulls young people into the path of greater harm. None of this violence happens in isolation. These are the flows of a system at work.
I am grateful for the ways that we are able to interrupt that violence and I believe in our power to do so. From the grannies and aunties who have held ceremony for decades in Vancouver to the mutual aid and prayer walks my friends organize in their communities, Indigenous activists are making crucial interventions and sowing seeds of transformation. I want to thank Morning Star Gali for talking with me about some of the powerful work she and her co-organizers are doing. I hope everyone will answer the call to action Morning Star shared for May 5, and we will be including some followup content on that call to action in the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- You can learn more about Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples here.
- You can learn more about the upcoming week of action here or look for a march or rally in your area.
Books to check out:
- Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement by Ejeris Dixon (Editor); Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Editor)
- Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World by Dorothy Roberts
- The U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately hurts Native people: the data, visualized by Leah Wang
- Native Americans Most Likely To Die From Police Shootings, Families Who Lost Loved Ones Weigh In by Teran Powell
- The Failed Response of State Justice Agencies to Investigate and Prosecute MMIW Cases by Rose Quilt, Paula Julian, Kerri Coffer, Amy Sparck, and Jacqueline Agtuca
- Montana Tribes Confront an Epidemic of Violence Against Indigenous Women by Jessica Douglas
- No One Knows How Many Indigenous Women Are Missing or Murdered by Jen Deerinwater
- Indigenous Women, Fracking, and Violence by Kelly Yu
- From foster care to missing or murdered: Canada’s other tragic pipeline by Pam Palmater
- The woman in search of Indian Country’s missing by Jessica Lussenhop
- I Will See You Again In a Good Way (report)
Previous episodes to check out:
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore on Abolition, the Climate Crisis and What Must Be Done
- Right-Wing Attacks on Native Child Welfare Law Should Frighten Us All
- Surviving Pandemics Is Indigenous Resistance