By now, you may have seen the hashtag #MMIW. It stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The number of North American Indigenous women who have gone missing or have been murdered in the past decade is approaching several thousand. It’s alarming, to say the least, and nothing short of an urgent matter. The problem is real, and it deserves more attention.
A quick search of the term “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” right here on ICTMN will help explain the gravity of the situation. You’ll find a host of articles dating as far back as 2010 which highlight some of the events, progress, and struggles surrounding the issue. A scan of these headlines will also reveal another factor: Though the problem transcends borders, awareness of MMIW is much more prevalent in Canada than stateside.
Tanaya Winder – poet, educator, writer, and activist. One of the SORR organizers. Photo courtesy Tanaya Winder.
But that’s changing.
In February, a group of young and incredibly powerful Native women – Hannabah Blue, Tanaya Winder, and Patty Stonefish – planned and hosted a week of events in Fargo-Moorhead with the purpose of spreading awareness of the missing and murdered on this side of the border. The week of events was titled, ‘Sing Our Rivers Red.’
With hundreds of attendees and participants, it was a resounding success, and it’s safe to say they achieved their goal of spreading awareness and uniting disparate voices.
Events included a hip-hop concert with performances by Frank Waln, Mic Jordan and Young Jibwe; documentary screenings; poetry readings; an earring art exhibition; an Arming Sisters self-defense workshop; and finally a march on Valentine ’s Day where dozens braved the bitter prairie temperatures to show support for the cause.
The organizers caught the attention of area officials, too. Mayors of the cities of Fargo, Moorhead, Dillworth and West Fargo listened to their presentation at a Fargo Native American Commission meeting, and immediately signed a proclamation acknowledging February 14 an official awareness day for murdered and missing indigenous women, calling for more resources to “address the colonial gender based violence.”
I sat down with Hannabah, Tanaya and Patty in order to learn more about their efforts. Here’s a little bit of that conversation.
Q: I’m intrigued by the title you chose for the week of events: Sing Our Rivers Red (SORR). What does it mean? How did you come up with the name?
Hannabah: The Red River runs north right in between Fargo-Moorhead and all the way up to Manitoba. There’s an effort there in Winnipeg called “drag the red” where the community members come together to look for MMIW. They drag the river because they don’t get a lot of support from law enforcement. We want these events to support – not detract from – what’s going on up in Canada, and so the name “Sing Our Rivers Red” is an homage to that effort. It’s strength-based. We can use our voices for healing. We can sing our rivers red.
Tanaya: And it’s not just the Red River, but water is what connects us all. Water of life is everywhere. There are bodies of water that we need to survive, but at the same time, we are all drowning. As Indigenous women we are drowning in injustice – but if we can infuse that healing through our voice and whatever it is that makes our spirits sing, the source of the hurt can be the source of the healing.
Q: What do you hope will come of these events?
Patty: We’re hoping for recognition. There’s no recognition in the U.S. yet about our missing and murdered Indigenous women The data and resources aren’t even very solid, but the estimated figure is around 1,000 MMIW in the U.S. since 2000. Acknowledgement is a huge step forward. It’s way less than what we need, but it’s a huge step.
Hannabah: We address similar issues in the U.S. that are a bit more visible like the Violence Against Women Act, but we want to show that all of these things are related and we need to address everything – not just small pieces of the puzzle.
Hannabah Blue – activist, journalist, and public health advocate. One of the SORR organizers. Photo courtesy Hannabah Blue.
Tanaya: People are hungry and ready for awareness and acknowledgement. Recognition, awareness, action and solidarity are the goals. What’s happening this week is a microcosm of what can happen. We need to attack the issue from all angles, and whatever your gift is you can use it to speak to the issue, whether that’s music or poetry or some other passion. It’s giving a chance for community healing.
Q: Why do you suppose this issue goes ignored by the majority?
Hannabah: It’s related to a bigger topic – this underlying notion that Native women are expendable. We’re objects. We’re not important. And where does that come from? Well, there’s a broader idea in society about Native women being sexualized, and that’s a result of colonization, patriarchy, and a lot of other things that are counter to our traditions.
Q: Patty, tell me more about the mission of your organization, Arming Sisters, and how your self-defense courses are geared differently.
Patty: One thing you always hear about in relation to women’s self-defense is this umbrella of prevention. They tell you “don’t be a statistic,” “watch your back,” and they give all these rules we should follow about what not to wear, where not to go, and how not to act. My view on women’s self-defense is not at all like that. My view is that we shouldn’t have to change anything about ourselves or act any differently than men should have to act. Being attacked is never our fault – it’s the perpetrator’s fault. Self-defense is an empowerment tool … self-empowerment. I hate it when people say they’re going to empower other people because when you say that, that in and of itself takes power away. Due to everything going on in our world on a daily basis, little parts of us get pulled away constantly. It’s about coming back to the center, and that’s what makes us strong. Women’s self-defense is something we all already have inside of us, it’s just about reawakening that natural instinct.
Q: Tell me about the earring exhibit. I saw your request calling for donations of single earrings to represent women who have gone missing or murdered.
Tanaya: We received 3,405 earrings from 45 different states and 6 provinces in Canada along with 400 individual letters.
Q: Wow! And if you think about it, each one of those earrings represents at least one conversation. That’s a lot of conversations… What will come next?
Tanaya: We want that momentum to continue and to encourage people to take parts of it to their own communities. The earring exhibit will travel and keep growing, and we’re thinking of ideas for more events as well. It’s still evolving. Other communities are mobilizing around it, so we hope to see these types of events continue.
Chelsey Luger. Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio.