Invisible No More
Published May 21, 2019
PONCA CITY, Okla. — Under the same moon and on tracts of the same land that saw Osage women among the victims killed for oil wealth, a century on from the Killers of the Flower Moon MMIW survivors, family members and advocates coalesced to emphatically state “Invisible no more” and “No more stolen sisters.”
“I love this billboard being here and all the people who are standing up and representing what it means,” said Tammy Eagle, a citizen of the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma, as she finished sharing a heart-wrenching account of how her mother-in-law was brutally murdered. Eagle is a direct descendant of the hereditary Ponca chief, White Eagle. Born in 1840, Chief White Eagle left harrowing episodes of the Ponca people’s forced removal from Nebraska in 1877. Many aspects of the abuse suffered by the Ponca women on that “Trail of Tears” were echoed within the testimonies of MMIW victims and survivors who turned Ponca City’s streets red this weekend at the culmination of the 2019 Frontlines Oil and Gas Conference.
Beneath the headline “What if she was your daughter?” indigenous women from the four directions carried banners and red dresses and gathered beneath the sign that on this day was transformed from a billboard to a symbol of resistance, strength, healing and empowerment in Ponca City, Oklahoma, a town that can become a virtual “man camp” to sustain rampant extractive industry development that has caused environmental devastation on the Ponca Nation.
“This is a disease that these people have,” explained Ponca Councilwoman Casey Camp-Horinek, as she opened what became more ceremony than rally. “It’s an illness in their minds that we’ll never understand,” she said of the perpetrators of MMIW crimes, the full extent of which remain unknown due to failings in interagency law enforcement cooperation, an absence of competent data collection and sharing, and misidentification. Studies have demonstrated how extractive industry “man camps” contribute to the high rates of sex trafficking suffered by Native women and children. Spikes in sex crimes among tribal communities have also been shown to coincide with “man camps” being raised in proximity to reservations.
“When it comes to us filling out their forms for missing loved ones, it’s as if we don’t exist. The box we’re supposed to check is labeled ‘other,’ but we’re not ‘other,’ we are tribal members, indigenous people,” highlighted Suzaatah Horinek, the Ponca Nation’s Director and Coordinator for the Tribal Sexual Assault Support Program (TSAP).
Ponca Councilwoman Casey-Camp Horinek
The tribal alliance of the Global Indigenous Council (GIC), the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC), and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) remains in the vanguard of the MMIW struggle on Capitol Hill, pushing for meaningful legislation to combat what Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) has described as “an epidemic.” In February 2019, Senator Tester introduced the Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act. This legislative call for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to reports of missing and murdered Native Americans and recommend solutions based on their findings, originated with the GIC-RMTLC alliance.
In the Senate, both Senator Tester and Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) committed to securing the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA amendments to Savanna’s Act in the final bill, while in the House, Congressmen Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), and Congresswomen Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Deb Haaland (D-NM) have done the same. The bill’s original sponsor, former senator, Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), backed the amendments before leaving office, and political voices as diverse as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Congressman Markwayne Mullin have expressed support for the tribal alliance’s strengthening of Savanna’s Act. The key points from the draft submitted include:
– The establishment of an interagency law enforcement body in each BIA region to best achieve inter-jurisdictional cooperation and disentangle the present complicated jurisdictional scheme through mandated interagency coordination between federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies;
– Guidelines on reviewing “cold cases” and improving “cold case” investigative methodology, including analysis of the serial nature of MMIW crimes;
– Guidelines on ensuring access to culturally appropriate victim services for victims and their families, including the establishment of Tribal Liaison Offices (TLO) in each BIA region to:
(a) provide a confidential environment where tribal and community members can share information on MMIW cases in a culturally appropriate setting and in their own languages. The TLO would be a conduit to pass information to law enforcement;
Indigenous women stand in solidarity
(b) rebuild trust and confidence in law enforcement among tribal communities, which has been undermined by decades of mistrust;
(c) be a point of contact for victims’ families, to provide support and advocacy in the community and with law enforcement;
(d) ensure that mental health treatment is available for the survivors of these crimes. Treatment that is culturally oriented while also embodying the latest, most effective mental health practices.
“In 20-years we’re not going to need to have billboards like this or gatherings like this because we’re going to stop this,” rallied Suzaatah Horinek. “This truly is an epidemic. It’s a sickness. And this is not new, it started at contact. When they started to take our land, they started to take our women and children, and it’s continued because it’s allowed to continue. With our voices raised in solidarity we can stop this,” she said.
MMIW survivors and victims’ family members alike came forward to share their pain and their experiences, and spoke of justice and healing, and the power of the occasion. Through tears, one family member embodied the sentiments of many, when she told how the perpetrator who took the life of her relative was given probation. “His family gets to see him whenever they want to. We get to go to the cemetery,” she said. Among those remembered were MMIW victims Julie Bear, Sandra Hinman, Brittany Adams, Dorothy Buffalo Head, Julia Price, Crystal Garcia and Jessica Alva. After each testimony, the crowd solemnly repeated the victim’s name out loud four times. Bobby Roubideaux offered a courageous and heart-rending narrative that served to remind those in attendance that this tragedy isn’t inflicted upon women alone in the indigenous community.
“What took place here and what we’re doing is part of the prophesies,” began Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, before he completed the circle on the ceremony with prayer. “What we have done here; what our sisters have done, is going to grow. What we’re doing for our murdered and missing indigenous sisters, for our people, is traveling all over the country. We are saying, ‘No!’ to this. This is a prayer here and today we are on the road to healing and recovery,” assured Goldtooth.
Further information and updates: www.mmiw-gic.com
Conceptualized for the GPTCA-RMTLC-GIC alliance by Alter-Native Media, the MMIW billboard campaign has been independently funded by non-profit groups, including Nation Unsevered, a Beltway-based organization committed to supporting tribal self-determination. Photos courtesy of Alter-Native Media.