Trigger warning: violence, sexual assault, suicide
For most people, the phrase ‘Native American woman’ conjures up thoughts of Disney’s Pocahontas with the wind in her hair, staring pensively into the distance. Unfortunately, the reality of life for many Native women in the USA and Canada couldn’t be further from this quaint idea, as the hashtag #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) has been demonstrating on Twitter. It is time we all become allies for the Native community, educate ourselves and help to raise awareness of their cause, because the non-Native community has been silent on this topic for too long.
The Canadian government announced at the end of 2015 that it would be conducting an inquiry into violence against Native Canadian women since the 1980s – a start, but there are still issues with this inquiry and it has been criticised for failing to be thorough. There had been calls for an inquiry before, but the previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper had neglected them and it has taken an entirely new administration to accept the need for this inquiry. This fact alone speaks volumes, but even now there is an inquiry underway there have been criticisms of the government’s conduct.
It is time we all become allies for the Native community
In February of this year, the Guardian reported that the number of indigenous Canadian women who have gone missing or been murdered between 1980 and 2012 may stand at 4,000 – far higher than police estimates of 1,200. Native women make up only 4% of Canada’s female population, but 16% of all women murdered. Furthermore, a lot of these cases are cold cases and cases which did not receive a thorough enough investigation the first time around, making this inquiry appear greatly overdue. Family members of victims claim that police were negligent and did not give cases involving Native women enough attention, leading to a high number of cold cases. The fact that is has taken over thirty years for this chronic violence to be investigated shows how important it is to talk about it now and keep these women in our consciousness. This is a clear example of the non-Native community’s enduring silence surrounding violence against Native women – a silence which must be broken.
It’s not only Canadian women who face problems. In Native communities in the USA, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general female population of the USA. 329 rape cases were reported among the Navajo community in 2011, and Native communities also face more general problems with substance abuse, obesity and suicide. Yet these problems are rarely discussed outside of Native communities, making it all the more difficult to help because these communities are hardly listened to. This needs to change. The US government should follow Canada’s lead and launch an inquiry – or better yet, invest more money in helping communities in reservations to escape poverty and addiction, and introduce legislation that treats Native Americans more equally than current laws.
There has always been a level of reluctance to discuss Native Americans among non-Natives, and the consistent refusal to acknowledge the historical significance of white insensitivity to Natives is, frankly, astonishing. Controversies such as that surrounding the Washington Redskins football team show that there is still considerable progress that needs to be made in all areas of Native/non-Native relations. However, remaining silent about continuing violence against Native women is something that we simply cannot condone any longer. Mass murder of Natives on the battlefields of America may now be consigned to history, but other forms of violence against them – and a reluctance to talk about them – certainly aren’t.
there is still considerable progress that needs to be made
So how can we help? The simplest way to start is by engaging in conversation about violence against Native women, raising the subject and being an ally. Join in discussions and activism, share the NWAC’s archive of missing posters, but most importantly listen to the voices of Native women and spread their own voices and their own stories. It is important that we do not try and speak for the Native community, but that we listen to them and draw attention to their voices. You can also donate to the NWAC or NAHA. For more general discussions about the problems facing Native communities, nativeappropriations.com is a fantastic place to start.
Of course, we must not reduce all the tribes of the entire Native community down to one single idea of strife and struggle, but we cannot remain silent on the subject of violence against women, especially those of us who consider ourselves feminists. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has quite rightly helped to raise awareness of institutionalised racism and violence against African Americans, and now we must also fight for the lives of Native Americans in the same way.