At least 300 Indigenous women go missing or are murdered in the United States and Canada every year (Hegyi2018). However, the number is likely far greater, as there is no official record of these women, because governments and local police precincts have failed to keep track, and in many cases, do not actually investigate. The history of Indigenous groups in the United States and Canada is one that is often over-looked and popular narratives are fraught with untruths. Most of us remember the story of the first Thanksgiving, and when we think about Native Americans, we might think about Pocahontas or Chief Sitting Bull. We might think about tipis or reservations. Most of us probably don’t think about genocide. We should. Most people probably do know that European colonists arrived in North America looking for gold and for new land. Those colonists brought with them disease, such as small pox, death, and war. Indigenous groups were susceptible to diseases and illnesses brought by colonizers because their immune systems had not encountered those illnesses prior to first contact. This resulted in catastrophic rates of death amongst Indigenous groups across North America. Such a high loss of life, aside from such an obvious reduction of Native populations, also forced many to migrate, which in some cases, impacted their cultural traditions (Rivera 2013). To give just one example of the impact that disease had on Indigenous populations, the first outbreak of Small Pox recorded occurred in the early 17thcentury in New England and resulted in a loss of an estimated 75 percent of the Indigenous population (Rivera 2013). Though scholars and historians are unsure about exact numbers, they agree that populations of Indigenous people in North America were around 10 million. By 1890, the federal government estimated that the population of Native Americans had dropped to 248, 253 (Edmunds 1995). Aside from genocide by death, as mentioned above, there was great cultural loss. In the late 1800s, the policy in the United States morphed from “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” to “land, law, and education” (Adams 1995:16). By this point in time, many Native Americans, if not most, were living on reservations, which policymakers believed to be reinforcing the “uncivilized” cultures of American Indians, as well as instilling an attitude of dependence rather than self-sufficiency, which was and still is the dominant ideology in America (Adams 1995). Because Indigenous culture was still viewed as uncivilized and savage, it seemed the only way to “fix” this “Indian Problem” was to assimilate them and the best way to do that was to start with children who were not yet “infected” by the disease of “savagery.” Consequently, Indigenous children were sent to boarding schools where they learned to be “White.” Their clothes were taken, their hair was shorn, and they were taught to speak English and worship the Christian God. The government also took initiatives to prevent Indigenous women from having children in the first place. In the United States during the 1970s, the Federal government forcibly sterilized an estimated 25 percent of 15-40 year-old American Indian women, often under the guise of a womb transplant, or appendectomy (Lawrence 2000). More recently in Canada, a Canadian Métis senator for Ontario, Yvonne Boyer has asked the Canadian senate to investigate the sterilization of Indigenous women in the nation. So far, about 60 Indigenous women have brought a lawsuit over the sterilization without consent in Saskatchewan (Canada Broadcasting Corporation 2018). Similar to the forced sterilizations in the United States, these women were told the procedure was reversible, with medical staff, including nurses and doctors, coercing them into signing consent forms using scare tactics, often while in labor. Additionally, permission to see their newborn children was withheld from some women until they signed the form (Canada Broadcasting Corporation 2018). Most of these women were sterilized within the last 25 years, with some as recent as 2017. All of these are actions of genocide against Indigenous people, and they are representations of society’s perceptions of Indigenous groups. The lack of concern given to missing and murdered Indigenous women is a result of centuries of mistreatment of Native people in the United States and Canada. It is an extension of the genocide.
The relationship between colonizers and the colonized sets up relations for decades to come. In American public schools today, Indigenous people are often only taught as historical figures, as if they don’t still exist (Shanley 1997). We see moccasins, dreamcatchers, Indian Princess or Chief costumes, and other articles attempting to replicate American Indian culture, but little attention is given to actual American Indians, their stories, the issues they face, or their actual cultures. Indigenous folks in the United States and Canada experienced literal and cultural genocide, and now, faux artifacts of their cultures are sold by corporations that are not Native-owned. Many of the items being reproduced are made to replicate those that they were stolen from children in the boarding schools because they represented savagery, and now, White people profit from the reproduction of inauthentic reproductions. In 2016, 84 percent of the 2000 Native American and Alaskan Native women surveyed by the Department of Justice indicated that they have experienced violence, while 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, with 90 percent of those having experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member (Gilpin 2016). As previously mentioned, Indigenous women are going missing and they are being murdered, and little attention is being paid to this issue by governments, media, or criminal justice employees. As if they are invisible, as if they don’t exist anymore. Two Indigenous scholar who has begun compiling her own database for missing and murdered Indigenous women wrote that these women “have disappeared “not once, but three times, in life, in the media, and in the data” (Domonoske).
The idea behind my memorial is to give voice to the people and groups who are looking for the missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. as well as Canada. Though dreamcatchers are not traditional in many Indigenous cultures aside from the Ojibway (Chippewa) tribe, they have become a neotraditional symbol used by other tribes in the United States (Native American Languages). The legend, as most of us know, is that the web in a dreamcatcher will catch bad dreams and protect the sleeper from nightmares. In neotraditional use, sometimes it is believed to be a symbol of Native unity (Native American Languages). Based on this, I want to create a large dreamcatcher. Of course, if this were to ever be made, I would commission a Native artist to do all of the construction and design for this, so as not to insert my voice in it where it is not needed or wanted. The beginning of the memorial piece would simply be the traditional hoop wrapped with buckskin and webbing. After this initial construction, it becomes interactive. It Starts With Us is a community-led initiative that seeks to create a database made by Indigenous communities that honors the missing and murdered Indigenous women and their families and gives support to other groups working to find and honor these women. This group has stated that they do not want the media to speak about family members, as they do not want the media to misrepresent these women or use false data (It Starts With Us). Therefore, I want this memorial to be a place where families and friends of the missing and murdered Indigenous women can come and write and create their own tributes. There will be no beadwork or feathers or any of the traditional items seen on dreamcatchers placed there by myself, as it is to be a space for the families and friends to create. As a white person seeking to be the best ally I can be, it is not my place to take on the voice of any Indigenous group and therefore, I must be careful to not insert my voice into a memorial that has nothing to do with my own experiences. It was difficult to create a memorial for this for that specific reason, but I think and hope that this design would be welcomed and a useful tool for the grieving families and friends. I think it would be ideal to have several installations of this memorial, as obviously this is a problem that stretches across two countries. I think it would be important to place the dreamcatcher walls in communities that have experienced violence against Indigenous communities and specifically those impacted by the issue of missing and murdered women.
As we discussed in class, memory is important when it comes to genocide. I think it’s incredibly important that the memories be created by those who knew the women who have gone missing or been murdered and that the voices of Indigenous communities are heard above all others in this context. I think it’s also important to be inclusive and culturally sensitive which is why I would want essentially all creative freedom to go to Indigenous communities rather than myself. The Canadian organization, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, states on their website:
“Together with family members and communities, we will make recommendations on the best ways to commemorate and honour those we have lost. Public commemoration is a powerful way to make sure that survivors are acknowledged for the suffering they have endured. It also ensures that families can let Canada know that their loved ones were cherished human beings who are still missed.”
The organization’s website also notes that “1273 family members and survivors have shared their truths” and that they have received 340 artistic expressions (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls). I think this signifies the importance of artistic representation of memory, as well as the importance of truth in the context of genocide. Allowing Indigenous communities to share their own messages in my dreamcatcher design allows for them to create and tell their own stories, their own memories, and their own truths. Thus, I feel this design is an appropriate way to honor and respect Indigenous communities and the women that they are missing or have lost.
Adams, David Wallace. 1995. Education for Extinction.Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas.
Canada Broadcasting Corporation. 2018. Indigenous Women Kept from Seeing Their Newborn Babies Until Agreeing to Sterilization, Says Lawyer. November 13. Retrieved November 30 (https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-november-13-2018-1.4902679/indigenous-women-kept-from-seeing-their-newborn-babies-until-agreeing-to-sterilization-says-lawyer-1.4902693?fbclid=IwAR3R_xp_dpBGVCvowu8ThRX1BGd5O2Q4MOqLP1sjsX-6uDilQYMSR8gwKFI).
Domonoske, Camila. 2018. Police In Many U.S. Cities Fail To Track Murdered, Missing Indigenous Women. November 15. National Public Radio. Retrieved December 4, 2018 (https://www.npr.org/2018/11/15/667335392/police-in-many-u-s-cities-fail-to-track-murdered-missing-indigenous-women?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR25GTe2vqyuO4VoUOm6r_vDPe3oNBDXYUG5LWSAWCigvV4G70dtmW2_RQg).
Edmunds, David R. 1995. “Native Americans, New Voices: American Indian History, 1895-1995.” The American Historical Review 100(3):717-740. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2168602).
Gilpin, Lyndsey. 2016. “Native American Women Still Have the Highest Rates of Rape and Assault.” High Country News. Retrieved December 7, 2018 (https://www.hcn.org/articles/tribal-affairs-why-native-american-women-still-have-the-highest-rates-of-rape-and-assault).
Hegyi, Nate. 2018. Weekend Edition Saturday: Doctoral Student Compiles Database Of Indigenous Women Who’ve Gone Missing, July 21. Retrieved December 4, 2018 (https://www.npr.org/2018/07/21/627567789/doctoral-student-compiles-database-of-indigenous-women-who-ve-gone-missing).
It Starts With Us. 2018. Retrieved December 7, 2018 (http://itstartswithus-mmiw.com/).
Lawrence, Jane. 2000. “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women.” American Indian Quarterly 24(3):400-419.
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 2018. Retrieved December 4, 2018 (http://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/mandate/).
Native Languages of the Americas. 2015. “Native American Dreamcatchers.” Retrieved December 7, 2018 (http://www.native-languages.org/dreamcatchers.htm).
Rivera, Mariel. 2013. “The Cultural Implications of European Disease on New World Populations: With Primary Focus on the Abenaki, Powhatan, and Taino Groups.” Scholars’ Day Review 1:22-27.
Shanley, Kathryn W. 1997. “The Indians America Loves to Love and Read: American Indian Identity and Cultural Appropriation.” American Indian Quarterly 21(4):675-702. (http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/stable/pdf/1185719.pdf).
Rebecca Morales is finishing up her Master of Arts in applied sociology and the certificate in women’s studies at ODU. Her research and writing interests include issues that impact American Indians such as cultural misappropriation and representation, domestic and sexual violence, and neocolonialism. She currently works at the Richmond SPCA and although not relevant to her degree, is currently pursuing a career in the field of animal welfare and rescue.