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Protect Indigenous Women


MATIKA WILBUR: Hello, relatives, welcome back to another episode of All My Relations. I'm Matika Wilbur and thank you so much for joining us. The following is a trigger warning. This episode contains conversation about rape, domestic violence, substance abuse, suicide and murder that some listeners may find disturbing and it may not be suitable for younger audiences. It's an understatement to say that this episode is a tear-jerker. We acknowledge the deep psychic spiritual wounds that have been violently inflicted upon our bodies and spirits that forever changed the foundation of our identities and cultures. We invite you to take a moment to make some space for yourself, smudge, light a candle, do whatever it is that you need to do to hold space. But know that right now I'm burning sweetgrass for you and all those past and present that have experienced violence in their lifetime. In their memory and honor, let's take a moment of silence.

DESI SMALL-RODRIGUEZ: Hi, everyone. Dr. Dr. Desi here, so we are releasing this episode today because May 5th is National Awareness Day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. A resolution was passed by the United States Congress, which declared May 5th, the day to honor the life of Hanna Harris, who was a Northern Cheyenne tribal citizen. She was from my home community in Lame Deer, Montana. And on July 3rd, 2013, Hanna left home to see fireworks and she never returned. Her badly beaten body was discovered on July 8th near our local rodeo grounds. And I want to acknowledge the Harris family, who fought tirelessly for justice for Hanna and who continue to fight for justice for many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across the country. Hanna would have been celebrating her 29th birthday today.

MATIKA: Mmm. You know, violence is very real in Indian country. The most quoted report that we've all heard over and over and over again is the one in three, which is one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. And that statement that I've been hearing for a really long time, we've all been hearing it for a long time, is from the 1998 Department of Justice report, which looks at the National Violence Against Women survey. But, you know, and the truth is, it's been discussed by everybody, right? Like The New York Times, The Washington Post, even Obama when he was president, he quoted that one in three survey and he said that it's an assault on our national conscience. It's an affront to our shared humanity. It's something that we cannot allow to continue. But, you know, that data is 25 years old. And you, Dr. Dr. Des being a survey gal, maybe you can explain to us how that's a problem and what some of the new information says?

DESI: Yeah, I mean, we know the data are old, right? And yet it continues to be quoted and it continues to be used in media and policy. Right. And the problem is that there hasn't been another report done by the federal government on this scale ever since. And it literally took two Indigenous women to create a new report in 2018. This was the Urban Indian Health Institute and the Sovereign Bodies Institute who came together to create a new report with data that had to be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. So the federal government isn't just giving these data over to Indigenous people and our advocates and allies. We actually have to go through a petition to get these data to be able to use them. And so that's, you know, the fact that there isn't transparency, accountability in the data that are being collected about our people is a huge problem. And so this this 2018 report was huge. It's still huge. It, you know, had this massive impact across the country to policymakers and legislators at every level. And this report identified 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. So these are reports, OK, reports of them being missing. But do you know how many of those cases were actually logged into the United States Department of Justice's federal missing persons database? Only 116. So literally only two percent of these cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women were even logged into a federal database. And so, again, tells us the magnitude of the data problem, the pervasive erasure that that that is just so profound.

MATIKA: Mm hmm. But why does the data matter in this case?

DESI: The data matters because if we don't have the data on our people, we can't actually communicate with any sort of evidence to the people in power. The data are power. And so if we don't have data on our people and it's not accurate, then essentially our problem doesn't exist. This problem doesn't exist.

MATIKA: Mmm. Right, so with national media attention, with presidential attention, even with the data, we know that the reality isn't shifting. In fact, it's getting worse. And there have been some major wins in the last 15 years. Right. With VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act. And there was major confusion over that act. But basically what we know is that for a really long time, violent crimes were happening towards Native women and we didn't have the ability in our tribal territories and our tribal homelands to prosecute non-Indians. So in 2013, it shifted. We were able to prosecute non-Natives. But there was this like it was explicitly limited to violence committed by spouses, former spouses or dating partners. So consequently, women who are raped by persons within other relationships, for example, acquaintances or relatives or strangers. They're not covered by the that legislative change. And authority over such crimes requires Congress to enact additional reforms to federal law. So right now, VAWA is being reformed and was recently passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 17th, by a vote of 244 to 172. And so the act, if passed, would add numerous protections for Native women, including the expansion of scenarios where a federally recognized tribe would have jurisdiction over a non-Indian perpetrator. So past versions of the act covered crimes of domestic violence and dating violence. And this version as obstruction of justice, sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking and assault of law enforcement.

DESI: So the point is, contact your senators. We need this reform passed and it's being held up in the Senate. So that's that's critical. Right. There was also the passage of Savanna’s Act in September of 2020. And so this is a bill that requires the Department of Justice to strengthen training and coordination and data collection and other guidelines related to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people. But that's not without its complications either. And we'll discuss that later. There's also Deb Haalandsʻs new missing and murdered unit in the Department of the Interior, which provides cross departmental and interagency leadership involving MMIW cases. And this unit also puts the full weight of the federal government into investigating these cases across federal agencies all throughout Indian country. And this is huge because it is actually requiring agencies to work together and to be accountable for the first time ever on these cases. So how did we even get here? Why do we need these special laws, task forces and Senate hearings?

MATIKA: Mmm. You know, I really love the point that Sarah Deer makes in her book, The Beginning and End of Rape Culture: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. She says that America is founded in rape culture. You know, we take, for instance, Christopher Columbus, the iconic symbol of colonization, who actually bragged about raping Indigenous women in his in his journals. And Sarah says it's an extremely important acknowledgment because it exemplifies the logic of colonists who would continue to deploy rape as a tool of conquest. And she says the historian Albert Hurtado notes of the 19th century gold rush quote, Part of the invading population was imbued with a conquest mentality, fear and hatred of Indians that in their minds justified the rape of Indian women, end quote. And this rape culture didn't begin and end in the founding of this country. Native women experienced the trauma of rape as an ongoing violence that spans generations.

DESI: Absolutely. And this rape culture is also being perpetrated against Indigenous people, by Indigenous people. So we know we had rape in our societies, pre colonization too. Our societies weren't these like panaceas where everything was fantastic. But definitely we did not have rape to the extent to which the colonizers introduced. And, you know, the main point of difference, I believe, is that tribal societies restored balance and healing. And so I want to give a Cheyenne story that I've often discussed with my mom, who's an attorney, and she led the fight to get my tribe's first sexual assault law passed. And so prior to invasion, when a Cheyenne person was raped or assaulted, the goal of my tribe's society was to restore power to the survivor. And so the survivor and their family were able to go and take back their power by literally taking whatever they wanted from the perpetrator's home. And they could even burn the teepee. And our military societies could also take action by having a public shaming and that often included whipping and the perpetrator would be banished from the tribe for a period of time. And so the point was that restoring power to the survivor required a public action. And I feel like we are facing a very similar need today. We need public action to restore power to Indigenous survivors.

MATIKA: Mm. Yeah. Indigenous restorative justice. We need it. Right well, we have a lot to talk about. So let's just jump into the episode today. We have t