Driving Across Stolen Land
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Part 1: Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls
As a white couple embarking on the privilege to drive from Seattle, Washington to Anchorage, Alaska, we attempted to recognize the historical and current injustices that indigenous communities in North America have faced since white colonizers washed ashore. As we drove though poverty-stricken rural communities outlined by stunning white-tipped mountain ranges, we listened to both seasons of Stolen, a podcast about two startling issues that indigenous communities in North America face today. The podcast is hosted by Connie Walker, a Cree journalist who grew up in the Okanese First Nation, in Saskatchewan, and has been reporting on inequalities within the First Nations and Indigenous communities of the U.S. for decades.
The first season of Stolen: The Search for Jermain focused on the disappearance of Jermain Charlo, a 23 year-old woman from the Dixon Agency near Missoula, Montana. As the series continued, Walker not only investigated Charlo's disappearance, but connected the story to the overarching issue of assault, abduction, and murder against women that permeates many indigenous communities throughout North America. According to the CDC, murder was the seventh leading cause of death for indigenous women in 2019 and is ten times higher than the national average. Murder. That is unacceptable and perhaps may not even represent an accurate portrayal as the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), a tribal epidemiology center, has began to assess the severe underreporting of data or as they call it: "the institutional practices that allow [American Indian/Alaska Native women] to disappear not once, but three times--in life, in the media, and in the data."
In recent years, I have learned about the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls (MMIWG) as it gained some national recognition, but along our travels and during our short time in Alaska I have grown more attune to its presence. At a rest stop in B.C., we noticed a flyer from 2020 for a missing woman from Haida Gwaii. The flyer read: "Circumstances behind Disappearance: Afraid for own safety, and safety of family." At the Watson Sign Post Forest in Yukon there was a wall of signs dedicated to the MMIWG of Watson Lake and Kaska First Nations. And when I recently picked up the Spring 2022 issue of the Alaska Native Quarterly, I read an article (also published in Indian Country Today) about a woman in a small Interior Alaskan village who was "badly injured and afraid for her life" after "a domestic abuse incident."
After the assault, the community was not able to detain the suspect due to a lack of law enforcement so they called first responders from an outside hub. According to the article, first responders typically arrive in the remote village a few hours after an incident is reported. This time, state troopers weren't able to fly into the village for three weeks. During this time "the abuser roamed freely, while locals did what they could to protect the woman from further harm" because the community "didn't have the legal jurisdiction to press charges."
The article itself is not even about domestic abuse, but rather uses the crime to highlight another critical and complex issue that many indigenous communities face: the lack of tribal sovereignty.
Of course, these issues, are not simply prevalent in B.C., Yukon, and Alaska. There are MMIWG and domestic abuse in all corners of North America, with some of the highest levels of reported cases in Seattle, a city I lived in for nine months, and yet, didn't hear discussed quite as loudly---or perhaps, more plausibly, I wasn't listening.
"MMIWG: Strength In Unity—this image is part of Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project series by Eugene Tapahe, Tapahe Photography. This image was captured at the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, native land of the Shoshone, Bannock, Gros Ventre, and Nez Perce people." Photo & Image Description Courtesy of: isaaconline.org/mmiw