At a march this winter in downtown Rapid City to bring awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Sunny Red Bear went hoarse. “I lost my voice,” says Red Bear. “I couldn’t say all of their names. There are so many just in the Northern Plains area.”
The names of the people Red Bear wanted to honor are listed in a database that Annita Lucchesi (Cheyenne) began compiling as a graduate student. The MMIW Database, housed at the Sovereign Bodies Institute, seeks to centralize information in an effort to address what MMIW advocates consider a dire underreporting of violence against indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people. Similar to the National Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children, the MMIW Database updates cases from the U.S. and Canada and logs important aspects of the data for families, agencies and researchers.
According to a 2016 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, indigenous women, who comprise less than 1% of the U.S. population, are murdered in some counties at ten times the national average. Department of Justice research from 2010 found that more than half of Native American women and girls have encountered sexual and domestic violence at some point during their lives. Despite the disproportionate representation by Native females, advocates say a crisis of accurate data and under-reporting, exacerbated by jurisdictional issues between state, tribal and federal agencies, minimizes the gravity of the problem. Local initiatives to bridge the information gap include bills like South Dakota SB 164, which distributes guidelines and uniform procedures for the reporting of missing persons, including MMIP (Persons), to law enforcement personnel. Rosebud Sioux and Yankton Sioux tribal governments have passed similar measures.
Red Bear, Nikkole Bostnar and Cante Heart, who are friends and students at Oglala Lakota College in Rapid City, created MMIW He Sapa to bring education and awareness to Native and non-Native communities in the Black Hills region. “Native women have been systematically impacted to be vulnerable in many situations, whether that’s economically or otherwise,” says Red Bear. “The interstate running through South Dakota makes us vulnerable to sex trafficking. Man camps are being built for the Keystone Pipeline that’s being built to run through South Dakota. Man camps bring in thousands of men, who have no background checks or proof of who they are or where they come from, into pop-up communities. They have excess money and weeks off at a time. You are creating an equation for women to be abused and assaulted.” Bostnar adds: “The issue of MMIW has been happening over centuries ever since the colonizers came to this country. All the way back to the boarding schools, it’s always been swept under the rug.”
The group says making the issue more visible is a starting point. Marching in red ribbon skirts and holding placards “creates an atmosphere for people to be heard and a platform for people to express that we deserve fair treatment in all phases of justice,” says Red Bear. “Because of the negative climate in the Black Hills because of our history, it’s not only difficult to educate people, but to get them to care. We want to say, to city, state, and tribal officials, ‘this Native woman’s life is just as important as this non-Native life.’ Yet, response times and investigations don’t show that.” Bostnar says Native people lack trust in law enforcement. “We don’t expect them to be on our side. They’re not working for justice for us. That’s another reason why these cases are not reported.”
Red Bear says MMIW He Sapa also works to educate Native women across generations. “It comes in many forms because there’s so many different layers. Our biggest goal is for Rapid City to be a safe place for Native women. We’re educating young women on how to protect themselves and utilize the resources that are available. If no resources are available, we want to make them available. We even have to educate our grandmothers because there has been a historic lack of resources for educating ourselves.”
Red Bear, Bostnar and Heart say they each bring unique perspectives and experiences that ultimately create “very well-rounded goals and ideas” for their organization. As a baby, Red Bear was adopted out to a non-Native family. “I was sexually abused my entire childhood,” says Red Bear. “I ran away. I was in an abusive relationship. I lost a baby. Many of the women who go missing and murdered are homeless because of domestic violence situations.” Bostnar was raised in Orlando by a single mother who grew up in a white foster home. Bostnar says growing up in poverty with an addicted and abusive parent led her to being in abusive relationships. Several of Bostnar’s female relatives have experienced domestic violence. In addition, she says the 2016 death of her Rapid City neighbor Mariah High Hawk was not properly investigated. “I’m so passionate about it because it hits so close to home for me,” says Bostnar. Heart, meanwhile, says she was raised by a strong Lakota woman and advocate for her people who was married to Chief Arvol Looking Horse, keeper of the sacred pipe. “I was always taught to give back to my people, educate myself and do what I can for those who are less fortunate,” says Heart. “I’m also the mother of three daughters. I’m passionate about this because I care about how they grow up and I want them to be in a safe community.”
Red Bear says MMIW He Sapa plans to establish action teams to address the multiple levels of education the organization is undertaking. She hopes support can transcend race and culture. “In all reality, I think non-Native allies set the tone and standard for treatment,” says Red Bear. “Historically, we haven’t been listened to. When a non- Native person speaks up, joins our marches, says, ‘hey, this is not right,’ change comes in a stronger way.”
Tune in to SDPB Radio’s In the Moment with Lori Walsh on May 2, 11am-1pm (10am-Noon MT) for programming in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month.