For too many Indigenous women, love comes at a horrific price.
Bruises. Broken body parts. Broken souls. Rape. Fear. Missing. Murdered. All these words and more describe the violence many Native American and First Nations women experience every day, usually at the hands of someone they know. Nearly 40 percent are intimate partners, many of whom are non-Natives.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Highly touted (and debated) laws and policies, such as the Violence Against Women Act, currently do little to combat the staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, although many promise change is coming.
U.S. statistics show Native Americans experience violent crimes – including stalking, rape, and sexual assault – at rates more than double those of women of other races. One in three Native women report having been raped during her lifetime. The murder rate for Native women is 10 times the national average. Many experts agree these numbers are woefully underreported for several reasons, including distrust of a justice system that so often fails Native American people.
The situation isn’t any better for Canada’s Aboriginal women, who are three-to-five times more likely to experience violence than non-Aboriginal women ages 15 or older. According to Statistics Canada, in about half of all homicides the Aboriginal identity of the victim is reported by police as unknown. For instance, between 2005 and 2009, police reported 726 homicides where the victim was a woman aged 15 or older. Of these, the victim was identified as Aboriginal in 54 homicides, as non-Aboriginal in 292 homicides, and as Aboriginal identity unknown in 380 homicides.
Therein lies what many see as an overarching issue to getting justice for Indigenous women who experience violence: It’s not enough that many lose their life to violence; their tribal identities are stripped from them, too.
It’s fitting, then, that the movement doing the greatest work to identify, acknowledge and honor victims, survivors, and their families is one founded by First Nations women. Celebrating 23 years of advocacy, the February 14 Women’s Memorial March began after the grisly murder of a Coast Salish woman in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“…Her body parts were strewn about in various places,” said Marlene George, chair of the memorial march committee and citizen of the Tsimshian Nation. “Her family from the Coast Salish community of Sechelt came with a seer, or visionary, who was used to find her remains; it was a very powerful ceremony where prayers were offered at each site her remains were found.”
Fed up with the violence and lack of justice, Aboriginal women organized the first march to raise awareness on Valentine’s Day, just a few weeks after the Coast Salish woman—whose name the family asks not to be spoken or published for spiritual purposes—was discovered.
“They chose February 14 as the date because it is recognized internationally as the day when loving, kindness and caring is shown to one another,” George explained. “That first march was attended by about 28 community women, who carried placards of women's names who were murdered. They carried photographs and the march was led by an elder woman who performed ceremony at the hotels and alleyways where women's bodies were found.”
Thousands now march in Vancouver after an elder performs a respectful ceremony and prayer songs go up in Downtown Eastside, George said. Ribbons of lavender and yellow, traditional colors of healing and hope, are worn by marchers; medicines – including tobacco – and single roses are left throughout the march route at sites where women were last seen or murdered.
The movement and its message have spread. Now dozens of communities across Canada and the United States hold solidarity marches to honor missing and murdered Indigenous women, and to organize around community accountability, restoring sovereignty, and move away from oppressive legal systems.
The memorial marches call to the hearts of Indigenous feminists and allies like me for several reasons, but primarily because it is dedicated to ending the erasure of Indigenous women and the issues we face.
Lauren Chief Elk, a member of the Nakota and Blackfeet nations who lives in Montana, is a personal hero of mine for several reasons, but this time of year because of her vocal and active role in calling out non-Indigenous groups that steal the spotlight from the memorial marches and solidarity events.
“For me, this is about launching a war against figureheads like Eve Ensler, who is bulldozing Indigenous people all over the world,” said Chief Elk, co-founder of the Save W?y?bi Project, which is promoting a memorial march solidarity event in Billings, Mont., to honor women like Hanna Harris, a Northern Cheyenne woman found murdered last summer near her home in Lame Deer, Mont. Federal authorities still have not solved the case.
“I believe in grassroots work, especially work by other Indigenous women that fights against settler colonialism and helps heal us within our own communities,” Chief Elk said.
So do I.
I don’t know Eve Ensler personally, and while I’m sure she has good intentions like most who fall into the White Savior Industrial Complex, her One Billion Rising and V-Day anti-violence campaigns – which both fall on Feb. 14 and have global audiences – completely overpower and erase the work being done by the memorial marches for Indigenous women.
Supporters of Ensler and her movement will say there is enough room on Valentine’s Day to share the spotlight. Normally I’d agree, but once you figure in the sheer volume of marketing and PR that goes into Ensler’s campaigns, there is no spotlight left for a group that was operating well before One Billion Rising or V-Day.
Many indigenous activists, including Chief Elk, called Ensler out in open letters and voiced concerns on social media, demanding Ensler end her piggy-backing on the memorial marches as a sign of respect and solidarity. Something must have clicked, at least partially, because a small paragraph buried on the One Billion Rising’s “About” page appeals to its Canadian activists, asking them to postpone their dances until March 8, International Women’s Day.
But what about solidarity memorial marches and events for non-Canadians like Hanna Harris? Surely she deserves remembrance on a global scale.
To this end, Chief Elk’s Save W?y?bi Project created a database to illustrate the importance of giving the spotlight fully to murdered or missing Indigenous women. In addition, other Indigenous feminists and allies will be picketing Ensler’s campaigns, including productions of her play, “The Vagina Monologues,” and handing out packets of information on the First Nations memorial marches, solidarity events, and other organizations led by Indigenous women.
“I think the importance of doing our work on Valentine’s Day—fighting for that day to belong to Indigenous women – is because our lives and the lives of those murdered and missing women matter,” Chief Elk said. “Very specific violence happens to us; this is not all women experiencing what we experience. Violence against Indigenous women is settler colonialism at work, because you destroy tribes by destroying Indigenous women.”
Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota, is a freelance writer and blogger. You can find her at walkerwrackspurt.wordpress.com WalkerWrackSpurt.wordpress.com.