Aug. 12, 2020

Families of indigenous women fervently call for justice—and united action

Ojibwe Elder Mary Lyons is one of many indigenous leaders calling for justice and change. Photo: Martina Thalhofer

12 August 2020

Thursdays in Black grew out of women’s movements of resilience and resistance to injustice, abuse and violence. These movements, large and small, continue today to bring what have been longstanding, invisible tragedies to light. One such movement in Canada and the United States seeks justice and change for missing and murdered indigenous women.

Gwenda Yuzicappi of Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, last saw her daughter, Wicanhpi Duta Win (Amber Redman), on a mid-July night in 2005. Redman went out that night to a Fort Qu’Appelle bar and never came home. After years of advocacy, prayers and searches, her body was found in 2008.

Her personal tragedy was not an isolated event. According to a study for a 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, from 1980-2012 indigenous women and girls represented 16% of all female homicides while constituting only 4% of the female population in Canada.

The extraordinarily high rate of violence against indigenous women and girls has been borne out by other studies conducted in both Canada and the United States over the last five years that not only highlight the scale of the problem but the lack of visibility and attention by authorities and society at large. In 2016, one study highlighted that there were 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women but only 116 were logged into the Department of Justice database. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that homicide is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian/Alaska Native women. The recent studies highlighting that rates of violence against indigenous women in some areas are 10 times the national average also spotlight the lack of data – and concern by authorities - over decades.

Out of the shadows

But there is hope for change: indigenous women and communities are uniting to raise awareness in the wider society and among authorities.

Great-grandmother Mary Lyons is an Ojibwe Elder and an activist, and she’s bringing the topic of violence against women out of the shadows, into a space where justice and action can make a difference.

“What has been happening to women has always been sitting in the shadows since the beginning of time,” Lyons said, explaining that, for all too many non-indigenous people, indigenous women seem to be secondary human beings. “When non-indigenous sportsmen would come up during hunting or fishing seasons they would take advantage of our young women – 50 years ago and even up to now.”

Lyons, too, speaks from personal tragedy: “Over 30 years ago, my younger sister – her significant other was caucasian, and she had a restraining order against him. Every time she’d call, the police would come and they would listen to him and not to her. All the way up to when he murdered her. And still that fell on deaf ears, because he only got a couple of years. She left three beautiful boys who should have called her ‘Mom’ instead of me. How do you move forward, looking at these beautiful young men, teaching them to honor and respect women, and not to carry such anger or loneliness?”

High time for change

Yuzicappi, Lyons, and thousands more are asking, “When will our voices be heard?”

“There were so many of us who were feeling the same and we didn’t know how to move and to have our voices heard,” said Lyons. “To even feel that we were human enough, even US citizen enough to say our voices mattered while they still took our taxes.”

Lyons and others began to harness their anger and frustration in an impactful way. “We had to do it ourselves.”

For Lyons in Minnesota, in the US, the key was learning to think in a non-indigenous way. “We had to learn their thinking in order to understand what was happening at their table of justice, because we were never invited there.” And the key to that invitation, she said, was money – the cost to the government of caring for the children of murdered women, and prisons for the perpetrators.

The advocacy of indigenous leaders in Minnesota led to creation of a state task force on missing and murdered indigenous women in November 2019, which will report in December 2020.

Listening to the wisdom keepers

It’s a step forward, but Lyons – with the grandmothers and grandfathers throughout the indigenous community – know much more must be done to restore the balance of life and the sacredness of the feminine which grounds indigenous spirituality.

“We are talking to grandmothers and grandfathers and wisdom keepers around the world – there is always the common thread of existence which is with the female, which was unravelling,” said Lyons. “It was unravelling because of the other gardener supposed to be standing with her – the male and female standing together."

How do you deal with a culture which says your only job is to have babies, and your only job is to clean? "Or your only job is to pleasure me? Your first impulse is to reflect their ignorant masculinity and to be angry with them. You are giving back what you could have control over."

The elders and the grandmothers advised their communities to stop sitting and waiting for their voices to be heard but instead step up and speak the truth.

Yuzicappi has gained strength in speaking about her daughter and her own experience through the long ordeal with the police and criminal justice system in Canada.

“I share her story to let anyone who is listening know that they can change one thing in their own life, for example: safety,” said Yuzicappi. "What has made a difference in my late daughter’s story will help women—young to old—to make changes in their lives.”

She also supports families who have gone through similar pain, respectfully listening to their stories.

Ultimately, she has an important message for the public: “Women are the life-givers. Without the women there would be no existence! The men need to respect and protect the women!”

Yuzicappi also shared her story – along with over 1,400 other affected individuals - through Canada’s National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Women. In the report, published in June 2019, 231 recommendations were made to governments, institutions, social service providers, industries and all Canadians.

Yuzicappi affirms the importance on following up on the recommendations, “ensuring the police are doing their job, and the media are supporting the families by reporting their stories.”

She also has a message for families who have lost loved ones: don’t give up. “It does not matter if your loved one struggled in life, or was addicted to drugs or alcohol! What does matter is this person is a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunty, a cousin, a friend!” she said. “Every family has a story that is unique and if the family is willing to share their story, then listen: it’s an untold story that is being shared.”

A global song

As the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women becomes more visible, more people are demanding effective action—even on a global scale.

“I strongly believe in international solidarity against sexual abuse and violence,” said Yuzicappi. “The more voices and support for indigenous women is incredible!”

For Lyons, it is important to act together and as equals: “Do it together, side by side. No one is leading, no one is following. We go as the oneness of humanity. You have to take down the walls that separate us.”

Yuzicappi closes with a message of support to those most affected, the families: “I want to honor your loved one’s legacy! My prayer to you is love, hope and good health. You are not alone—you are supported. Your loved one’s story is a song.”