People shouted out the names of their missing or murdered Indigenous relatives: “Mariah” “Selena Not Afraid” “Aubrey” “Jeremy.”
With hundreds packed into the Minneapolis American Indian Center for the annual march for missing and murdered Indigenous women, the cacophony of the names illustrated the extent of the epidemic of sexual and physical violence against Native Americans.
“We haven’t forgotten them. We will never forget them,” said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, which organized the march.
The event drew elected officials including Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who declared it a day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the city. Jane Sanders appeared on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
I am honored to have marched today in Minneapolis to stand in solidarity with all the Native peoples of this nation seeking justice for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. It’s time to put an end to this epidemic. #MMIW pic.twitter.com/RoFj2iuNpW
— Jane O’Meara Sanders (@janeosanders) February 14, 2020
“Until every single one of our daughters, our mothers, our sisters are brought home, we are failing everybody in Minnesota,” Walz told the crowd.
Native women are much more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence, sex trafficking and murder than other groups. One in three Native women is sexually assaulted during her life, with the vast majority of perpetrators being non-Native.
Young Native women are particularly vulnerable. Homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native girls and women aged 10 to 24, and it’s the fifth leading cause of death for Native women aged 25 to 34, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The epidemic extends to men and boys as well. More than four out of every five Native people have experienced violence.
Just how many Indigenous women and girls are missing, however, is unknown.
Last year, the Minnesota Legislature created a state-wide task force to examine the causes of violence against Indigenous women and recommend how to best collect data on it. (President Donald Trump created his own panel on missing and murdered Indigenous women last December).
The effort in Minnesota’s Legislature was led by Rep. Mary Kunesh Podein, a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and signed into law by Walz.
Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation, urged the crowd to keep pressure on the Legislature to act on the recommendations of the task force when they’re released this December.
“I look forward to the day when we gather in this same room, and we can say that every single woman, every single girl, every single member of our two-spirit community has been protected, and we are here to simply dance and march and celebrate,” Flanagan said.
Earlier in the day at the Ain Dah Yung Center in St. Paul, experts from the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center presented two new reports that shed light on how homelessness and housing instability are linked to sexual and domestic violence.
There’s a severe housing shortage across Indian Country as well as a shortage of shelters. The report notes that although there are 574 federally recognized tribes, there are fewer than 60 tribally-created or Native-centered domestic violence shelters.
Brenda Hill, a trainer with NIWRC and member of the Siksika Nation, said the lack of safe, affordable housing makes Native women vulnerable.
“One of the top reasons they could not escape (sex trafficking) was they had no place to go,” Hill said.
Women who do escape often become homeless. Nearly all women who were prostituted or sex trafficked had been homeless, according to a survey by NIWRC.
Hill and her colleagues say the creation of culturally appropriate, affordable housing is integral to preventing abuse and helping survivors heal from it. Of NIWRC’s survey of Native survivors, many said access to culture and ceremony was integral to their healing process.
“Solutions lie within our own cultures,” Hill said. “Our focus cannot just be on the negative and the violence. There has to be balance there, and that balance comes from our own cultures, our languages, our spiritual practices and beliefs and understandings.”