One of the subjects my daughter wanted to take in school was indigenous studies, learning more about First Nations, Native American people, and social injustice, but I told her she wasn’t going to learn an accurate history of First Nations in school, because the curriculum is outlined by the state, the government. We have a history of atrocities and inequities against indigenous people, the genocide, the trauma, yet in some places they have removed references to residential schools from the curriculum. The history of horrific abuse, ripping children from their families, some never to be seen again, is not taught, but it should be. That kind of abuse is something the average person doesn’t want to know about, to talk about, and it would give children nightmares. The discussion should not be just about residential schools but about the social injustice that still very much exists.
Then there are the missing and murdered indigenous women. I read an article not long ago about red dresses hanging in trees at the sides of the road. I remember seeing them with my son when we were driving, and he asked about them, about why there were so many. Those dresses represent missing and murdered indigenous women. That empty dress hanging there is a visual reminder and representation of a girl, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, who is missing, or maybe her body was found badly beaten. When I see one of those empty dresses, I wonder who the murdered or missing girl was. What was done to her? Was anyone looking for her? Has any meaningful justice happened for those girls?
Indigenous women and girls are stereotyped as partiers, as promiscuous. Add in the systemic inequities endured after years of residential school systems, colonialism, economic marginalization, and racism, and all of this has lasting impacts, from violence to trauma. One Canadian report has the homicide rate for indigenous women as six times higher than for other women. If that doesn’t have you sitting up, I don’t know what will. In the US, Native American women are more than twice as likely to experience violence, and one in three is sexually assaulted during her life. Activists in the US and Canada have fought to bring awareness to these issues.
Then there are property rights. Reservation land is held in trust by the federal government. So why were reservations created by the government to begin with? Indian reservations are among the poorest places, yet few understand the root cause behind this: a lack of property rights. Aren’t we in a time when the spotlight is on the wealthiest in our population? People often assume poverty on reservations is because of alcoholism, corruption, a lack of education, long distances to travel for a job, and undeveloped land with few resources. But unfortunately, it is a much deeper issue, and those are just symptoms of the real problem. Prosperity is built on property rights, and reservations have neither. An argument can be made that the great divide in which the wealthy become wealthier and the poor become poorer is widening now across this country, with more and more of the haves parking money in real estate.
In my newest book, The Trap, the fictional character Whitney Chandler was living in a remote location on a reservation. With the poverty she lived in with her brother and her mother, they had no car, so she had to hitchhike to a job miles down a highway, a prime hunting ground for male predators. Everything about her and what she had to overcome was a strike against her. Cell phone service on that remote stretch of highway was non-existent, as happens in so many places because cell phone companies aren’t required to provide it everywhere. In poorer areas such as around Indian reservations, the remoteness lends its hand to a lurking danger. It’s the perfect place for a predator, because girls can’t call for help.
Some may wonder why Whitney didn’t have a car, a driver’s license. Well, poor is poor, and places that issue driver’s licenses are only in populated areas, not in remote areas. You are required to show proper government ID, and believe it or not, often just the color of your skin results in services being denied. Then there is driving school. Who is teaching you how to drive? You have to be able to afford a car and obtain insurance, but getting a loan can be difficult if you’re indigenous, especially if you have no credit. Whitney was only seventeen when she disappeared while hitchhiking on a remote highway, leaving work late one night and never returning home. Her body was eventually found, but what happened to her? She never got the justice she deserved. We can understand her brother’s anger, how he’s forced to take justice into his own hands, because he won’t get it otherwise.
Education is the only way to bring an end to this vicious cycle and to start to repair the damage that has been done. We must understand how widespread systematic racism is, how deeply embedded it is in our countries, and how it comes into play in the reactions of the public when a woman goes missing and is found murdered. Is your first thought, Oh, what did she do? Until we get everyone in the country to care enough, it’s an uphill battle.
Just remember that we are not all treated equally. Consider this: If twenty-five white women from an upper middle class part of the country went missing and were found murdered, would authorities not pull in every resource available, every law enforcement agency? Maybe government leaders would do a news conference to toss more money at task forces and come down on the heads of every law enforcement officer, asking why the killer hasn’t been caught. Would women not be warned of a possible serial killer? Would governments not shut down highways and roads and put out extra police protection? The cost to taxpayers would be a small fortune. But it would be expected.
So when has this been done for indigenous women?
Until we get the majority of people to care enough when an indigenous woman goes missing or has been found murdered, until we all put out a cry for justice for these families, nothing will change. Where does it start? How about in school, teaching the real history and not a glossed-over version of how we got to where we are?
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