Voices from the Frontlines: MMIWR in Minnesota

AntiNote: In late September, several Minnesota-based collectives held space for a public conversation with Indigenous grassroots activists engaging in radical autonomous community care and defense work in the face of the ongoing epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives (MMIWR).

Taysha Martineau founded the Gitchigumi Scouts, a collective that conducts search and rescue patrols as well as survivor support and other mutual aid projects on the Fond du Lac reservation near Lake Superior, where the twin ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin are a hotbed of human trafficking. Mysti Babineau is a climate justice organizer from Red Lake and is helping secure and support a women’s encampment in south Minneapolis during a crushing housing crisis, opioid epidemic, and global pandemic (to name just three crises among many) all of which have severely impacted Indigenous people already extremely vulnerable to all manner of colonial violence, including sex trafficking. She also stubbornly advocates on the issue of MMIWR in nonprofit and policy circles.

They have graciously agreed to share their testimonies with Antidote readers. What follows is an extended excerpt of “Voices from the Frontlines: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives,” an online webinar held on 20 September 2020. Mysti starts with a coexistence statement.

Mysti Babineau: I want to give a little bit of the history of where this is coming from. A while ago people started doing these things called land acknowledgments, listing the Indigenous people who had initially occupied that territory, and paying homage to the land itself. As I was hearing these land acknowledgments, I was also hearing the reaction that it’s not enough to just acknowledge the land. Where is the action?

Part of that action is not only to acknowledge the existence of people tied to the territories that we live on today, but to acknowledge the deep relationship that these people have with the Earth that gives us everything we need.

I want you to imagine: where are your people originally from? Go back into your blood memory. If your people are from here, great, think about this beautiful Turtle Island. If your people migrated here, for whatever reason, or were stolen and brought here, I want you to think about that land where people came from and the love that your ancestors must have had for that land for generations, that Earth giving them everything they needed. The beauty of it, the noises. The rain, the water, the smells. What does the plant life look like there? Take a moment to take that in.

I want you to think about how that Earth loves your people. Because through generations, your people learned how to live in harmony with Her. Here, where we live today is occupied Dakota and Anishinaabe territory. If we are truly going to succeed as a culture, as a species, we can’t forget not only to acknowledge that Earth that we’re standing on, but to build that connection.

It is on us not only to acknowledge and declare that the Indigenous peoples of these territories are the ones that know best how to relate to this land and how to be in good relation, we also need to do better so that those people’s voices are heard.

When it comes to rape culture, Native American women have the highest stats, even in human trafficking. We are sold and viewed as nothing more than a fetish. The story of Pocahontas is a falsified, whitewashed account that sets the stage for the taking of Native women—and it’s a myth they sell to young girls that white rapists, otherwise known as John Smiths, are desirable.

Now I want to take a moment and bring it back to when the MMIWR epidemic first started. We hear the term sex trafficking and it seems like such a modern thing. Most of us know that prostitution is one of the world’s “oldest professions,” and there’s a reason for that. But it first started here on Turtle Island with first contact, when Europeans came over here and “discovered” us. The first well-documented case of sex trafficking—her name was Amonute. That was her birth name. She was later known to her people as Matoaka, and she later became known as Pocahontas. Her story is often portrayed as a romantic story of star-crossed lovers, two people who should not have fallen in love but they did and it was beautiful, “two cultures uniting.” Right.

The child that we call Pocahontas was twelve years old, according to most reports that I have found, when she first came in contact with the man known as John Smith. And he was somewhere between twenty-eight and forty when he met this twelve-year-old girl. She was a child. It wasn’t romantic. She was groomed. This man approached her and manipulated her, and took her from her people. She was taken to a small town a few miles away from her village—there are journal entries from men living in this town at that time. A little “savage” was brought into town—this is from the journals—by a man and she experienced “generous use” by the townsmen. That’s how they refer to this twelve-year-old child. She was later brought across the seas to England and it was rumored that she died alone in the streets, some people believe due to syphilis.

That’s where this epidemic first started, and it hasn’t stopped. There are many reasons why our women are disproportionately targeted. This is a business model. There’s a demand for this. Due to societal romanticization of the beauty of Indigenous women, our “commodity status” as they call it—you can pass off Indigenous women as other cultures, so that brings our value up to sex traffickers. We are systematically and institutionally targeted by law enforcement. We are living in poverty, and people know that we’re easy targets because we are vulnerable populations.

So I just wanted to start us there with the grounding that this is not something new to Turtle Island. This has been plaguing our communities and our peoples for a very long time.

Taysha Martineau: I’m glad that you brought that up, because growing up I was always taught “one in three.” The reason I started doing the work that I do is because I have three beautiful Ojibwe children, all of them born biologically female. One in three Native American women are raped in their lifetime, many before the age of fifteen. 85% of these rapes are committed by non-Indigenous offenders. When it comes to rape culture, Native American women have the highest stats, even in human trafficking. We are sold and viewed as nothing more than a fetish. The story of Pocahontas is a falsified, whitewashed account that sets the stage for the taking of Native women—and it’s a myth they sell to young girls that white rapists, otherwise known as John Smiths, are desirable.

As an Indigenous mother with Halloween around the corner, I want to challenge all the non-Indigenous parents here today to consider my children when they purchase Halloween costumes. The “Indian Princess” objectifies my children as no more than a sexual fetish to be bought, taken, or conquered. Yes, even if it’s just a child’s Halloween costume. As adults, I want you to consider my grandparents, raped and beaten in the boarding schools, their original languages outlawed, the men shot down from behind with rifles, their hair taken from their body to be sold at five dollars apiece, while children of European descent dressed as us and paraded through town playing “Cowboys and Indians.” With Halloween around the corner, please consider the fact that Indigenous women go missing at a rate higher than any other race.

I want you to remember that as Indigenous people we are still here, and these crimes against us are continuing. We can see it playing out most recently at the border. Before contact, Turtle Island was just that. It encompassed all of Turtle Island, not just the United States, and today we see mass hysterectomies happening to Indigenous people of this continent.

What I want people to understand and know about the MMIWR movement is: it isn’t about me, it isn’t about any specific group, it isn’t about getting coverage, or likes on Facebook, or recognition. This work is being done for the Indigenous community. This work is being done for the family. If it isn’t family-centered, then it means nothing. So when you speak about MMIW, please remember to step back and give those families space to speak about their experiences and what they’re going through, and make sure that it’s family-centered and survivors are taking the lead in this type of work.

MB: I just wanted to add a few more things I found through the research that I’ve been doing, just to give you some context of how prevalent and live this epidemic is for Indigenous populations—not only for Indigenous women; our men and our boys are experiencing this as well.

There’s not a lot of data. But there was one report that came out; most of the information I’m going to be citing is pulled from the second version of the Our Bodies Our Stories series, put together by the Urban Indian Health Institute out in Seattle. For one year they took a snapshot of data collected from 71 cities. They identified 5,712 reported cases across the country in 2016. Just to put that in context for Minnesotans, 70% of the cities and towns in Minnesota have a population of 4,000 people or less. So that’s like an entire average town being reported missing in 2016.

They found out that murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women. And they were only able to find actual documentation, some sort of reports that were taken, on 506 cases throughout this study. Out of those cases, 128 were missing, 280 were murdered, 98 cases had unknown statuses. Among these, 153 cases didn’t have records within law enforcement. That means that possibly this person was reported missing to an agency but the police department never filled out the form.

Specifically for Minnesota, about 26,000 men buy sex across the state annually. Minneapolis and St. Cloud are two of the top locations in the US for sex trafficking. 40% of these cases involve minors. There was a six-month study by a local prosecutor in the Twin Cities area that found over 34,000 advertisements posted online for sex with minors. And this isn’t just an urban problem. There was one case study of a sixteen-year-old survivor from northern Minnesota who was being exploited on average five times per day. They found through this study that the average age of minors that were being targeted for sex trafficking was thirteen years old.

We have to start telling the real history. There’s something about hearing that oral tradition too—it’s really easy to write something down and put it away on a shelf. But if you’re constantly coming together and retelling these stories, you’re building that culture and that community. And that story has life on its own.

TM: Doing this type of work is very taxing. It’s very draining and it’s very hard, but it’s also very rewarding. It is an honor to care for those who are going through these situations, and to stand with the families and support them through this. It’s an honor. I myself am a survivor. I’ve been through a lot. So a lot of the work that I do puts me in situations that trigger past abuses that I’ve survived and gotten through. To do this type of work, you need to have a strong support system, a circle of people around you who are also doing this type of work—we need to be able to reach out to one another and understand that all of us within this space right now are family. In order to move forward in a way that is good, in a way that is right, we need to be able to reach out to one another, and look for support within these circles.

Gitchigumi Scouts will do lots of ceremonies with survivors and their families, because it’s very important, knowing we have these cultural things we’re able to offer and provide for one another. When someone’s been assaulted, oftentimes in the hospital they’ll call for someone from PAVSA [Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault] for someone to support and advocate—Gitchigumi Scouts now dedicate our time to responding to calls such as that. Our number is out there for people who need us, and we’re willing to show up at the hospital and sit with them until an advocate arrives. During that time we’ll sit and listen to them, or be there in silence, or just smudge down.

And you know, oftentimes when someone’s been assaulted, be it a man or woman, the first thing the hospital will do for a rape kit is take your personal belongings for evidence. So we try to show up with something that they’re able to fit and be comfortable in so that they’re not just wearing the hospital underwear. There are so many different things we can do to help make situations easier for people, and that first step is kindness, making sure that we have the kindness to love and support all who are around us, and all who we come in contact to.

MB: Being able to have conversations like this in a loving and safe space is something that I’ve been trying to focus on. Educating people on the history, not only of the epidemic but of the people where I’m doing my work, through their words. We have to start telling the real history. There’s something about hearing that oral tradition too—it’s really easy to write something down and put it away on a shelf. But if you’re constantly coming together and retelling these stories, you’re building that culture and that community. And that story has life on its own.

I’ve gone on my own journey as a survivor through my work, and being aware of the barriers that I face, I’m trying to build up networks of support for other people who are ready to come forward and start the healing—in a way that isn’t further extractive to them. Because it sucks having to share your story. But sometimes we know we have to, so that people can really hear that pain and really see it, and can personalize it for themselves.

But that hurts. Every time. So I make sure that people who are coming forward have that support network. And I work for a nonprofit, so it’s extremely important to me to make sure that the people I’m working with directly are fairly compensated for what they’re doing. I don’t want to be another extractive entity in their life. I truly believe that if you’re taking care of the people around you and the people that you’re trying to help, that gets them in a better place to then help more people. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to do this work.

I take Fridays off. As hard as it is not to answer the phone, I just take that day for me. I used to feel really guilty about it, and sometimes I still do, but I need that time, because this work is really hard. It’s really heavy. Like Taysha was saying, I don’t do this for myself, I’m doing this for my people, and yes there’s reward in that, but it’s really heavy work too. So just having that day to focus on my kids, or sleep, or do whatever I want, helps me recharge so I don’t get to the point where I feel so extended. Because burnout is real, and I’ve crashed before and I don’t want to do that again. That’s not good for the people I’m working with.

The police are really bad at their job and they shouldn’t be doing it. They either can’t identify the signs or are willfully blind to them. And I’ll go as far as to say that police are involved, when it comes to the sex trafficking of our women.

TM: Gitchigumi Scouts is a group of Indigenous self-proclaimed anarchists, and we’re very proud of that. We do not work with law enforcement, unless we absolutely have to, or unless the family chooses to. Working alongside police has been very hard for me, but I’m here for the family, so when it comes to what their wishes are I’m going to respect that and I’m going to put my best foot forward, no matter what. But I’ve been in situations where the women—or children, men—that I’m trying to help have been re-victimized by law enforcement.

We’re not law enforcement officers, and because of that we can be more creative in the ways that we search for someone, or in the ways that we respond to a missing person. Law enforcement officers have all these protocols, rules, and a chain of command they need to go through before they execute a search warrant or perform a search or kick a door down. I don’t need that. I’m going to kick the door down for you. If you are missing, if you are in harm’s way, I’m going to do that. I put myself out there, and I’m willing to take those charges, because the safety of my people means more to me than a couple days in court—or whatever happens, happens. I’m there for the people first.

One family that I helped assist with their search found their loved one, and it was labeled as a suicide. I want to remind people that it costs counties and states money for things to be labeled as a murder, because then there’s funding that has to go into investigations and all sorts of different issues with that. That’s another way that law enforcement has been vastly ineffective in helping with the MMIW struggle: a lot of our murders are just pushed under the rug and ignored.

MB: I referenced earlier the lack of data. A lot of that has to do with inaction or just plain shadiness with police and law enforcement. There’s under-reporting, blatant racial misclassifications. I was going through some of the cases and missing person reports that we have here in this state, and it was pretty obvious: like, a family would make their own flyer of their missing loved one, with their description and ethnicity, clearly stating Native American, and in one example, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension used that flyer for their own flyer, but they listed that woman as white.

They’re unwilling to share data. In a lot of instances, whether it’s organizations trying to collect data for reports like the one we were referencing earlier, or even when it comes to legislative reporting, there’s a failure. In some cases in Minnesota, 30% of departments were not reporting sex trafficking statistics to the legislature. And their contact with Indigenous populations, period, has been questionable in the past. You know, there are stories of the Hennepin County sheriffs just beating the crap out of us on Franklin Avenue. There’s history here.

This is the conclusion that I’ve come to through my own experiences with law enforcement, ranging from organizing an event and having to deal with permits, or being in the streets searching for someone, or busting down doors: the police are really bad at their job and they shouldn’t be doing it. They either can’t identify the signs or are willfully blind to them. And I’ll go as far as to say that police are involved, when it comes to the sex trafficking of our women.

There was a report in the Star Tribune about the disproportionate contact rates police have with Indigenous women. And there was further research springing off that report that was finding out (before getting shut down) that most of these police officers were off duty. What are they doing having all this contact with our women when they’re off duty? A good chunk of those contacts were transportation of our women to undisclosed locations—meaning they weren’t taking our women to detox, the halfway house, jail, the shelter, or bringing them back home. Where are they bringing our women? And why are they all off duty? Why is this such a strong culture within law enforcement?

I know there are some cops out there who really care. But due to the systems that we have, and the training that these officers are given, and the lack of accountability and responsibility, they’re just further exacerbating this epidemic.

Society’s inability to deal with the coronavirus pandemic is horrendous. We still want to help, but how do we do it in a way that we’re not hurting more people than we are helping, and do it with even less money than was available before?

TM: Where I’m at, with the coronavirus pandemic we had a huge increase of domestic violence calls. A lot of that has to do with quarantining with your partner and not being able to go to work, not being able to leave the home—so we see those numbers rising. We gave out pepper spray to women on our reservation. We had had a death on the reservation, shortly before the pandemic and the lockdown started—I’m working very closely with the family of Jackie DeFoe, and this was their direct ask: that we get this pepper spray out to these women. It was a very beautiful thing for the family to recognize even in their grief that there are other women out there who still need help. And so we did that in order to honor Jackie. And we continue to offer services like that. If there’s a situation where domestic violence is happening, our phone number is out there, posted publicly on our Facebook page, for people to contact us.

We work closely with shelters in the city of Duluth, but oftentimes we prefer to bring someone to a direct family member. It’s a lot harder now to watch for predatory behavior because everyone’s wearing a mask, and that just means we have to double our efforts and keep at it. The shelters at this time are half occupancy, so that’s another issue, finding where we can safely house men and women who are being abused or dealing with these issues. We want to start up safe houses, but we need to do so in a way that is right and good, not just throwing together a house with the best intentions and hope for the best. That’s never the right way to do something, especially when it involves something as serious as people who have gone through something so traumatic.

The pandemic is a scary situation for everyone, and making sure that we’re doing what we do in a way that is good and healthy is our first and foremost priority. We want to practice responsible organizing. We make sure that masks are available at our events. We make sure that hand sanitizer is happening, social distancing is happening, and that when people go home they remember to wash their hands and get tested or at least monitor for symptoms over the next fourteen days and get tested immediately when symptoms arise. That way we can better protect our community from this virus, because as Indigenous communities we have a lot of underlying health conditions that make coronavirus deadly for our people, such as diabetes, heart disease—the list just goes on and on.

I’m hoping that we just keep evolving on what responsible organizing is, and how to do that best, so that we can continue showing up and showing out for our people as they need us.

MB: Yeah, there has been a spike in domestic abuse across the board since the stay-at-home orders have gone into effect. And with people being forced to be in these situations with their abusers—they’re less likely to be able to reach out to people and notify them of the abuse, and that’s further perpetuating the cycles of violence, and continuing that blood trauma in these communities.

And right now we’re in an economic crisis, and there’s a lack of funding for programs to do this work—organizations doing advocacy, shelters are losing funding. Things like this are making it hard to help more people. And we’re in a pandemic and the fear of coming in contact with this virus—and the possibility of spreading it—is real. I don’t want to go into a community to help somebody when I may have been exposed on the drive up there and I don’t know. Some Nations are still on lockdown themselves, so to go in there is a really big personal dilemma.

Society’s inability to deal with a mass crisis like this is horrendous. We still want to help, but how do we do it in a way that we’re not hurting more people than we are helping, and do it with even less money than was available before? Everybody’s hurting right now, and there’s a real lack of money to fund the work.

The Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition has staff that are currently working on different data projects, and they’re going to be losing a lot of their federal funding. They are a statewide coalition, a bunch of different groups working on domestic abuse, sex trafficking, sexual violence, working with survivors, taking what they call forensic interviews that will be used in court. They’ve been doing it for seventeen years—this is the longest-running coalition of this size in the history of the country. And the way that they do their work is very culturally appropriate: there are times of year when they all come together for ceremony, and they do different trainings and webinars. You can gather in this space with them, and people will talk about the work they’re doing, in such a loving and community-building way.

I’m raising my children here. Once the livestream stops and the nonprofits leave, I’m still going to be standing here on Ojibwe lands, fighting for a future for my children, hoping to god that the waters can still breathe, and that there’s not another woman who’s been snatched up and gone missing.

TM: There’s a lot of different ways that allies can plug in and help us. My group makes a lot of flyers, and post them all throughout our communities. We’d be happy for you to print those flyers off and post them up within your community as well. It only takes one person to recognize a missing relative, and the further we can get their faces out there, the better. Someone could be taken here, from my reservation, and with the Twin Ports right here, they could be transported anywhere. One of the first people I found was transported from Duluth and ended all the way up in Michigan. That’s why my group is named after Gitchigumi, the lake over there.

Wherever you’re at, whether you’re Indigenous, non-Indigenous, that doesn’t matter. There are a lot of groups doing this type of work. My group started in opposition to the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. I recognize that I may not be able to stop the pipeline all by myself. But what I can do is love and support my community, so currently that is my mission. For people out there who have access to wealth, you can help buy us paper for the printer, ink for the printer, print flyers at home yourself. Share our posts. Show up to our events. Just stand with us, you know? And when it comes to sending cash, it’s all about solidarity not charity.

MB: Education is huge, in all aspects. Start thinking your personal networks, your professional networks, your academic networks. Talk to your kids’ schools about this, because it’s our children who are being targeted. If you just sat down and had a conversation with them, you might find out how sick, and how prevalent, it really is.

The city of Cloquet has a population of about 12,000 people. Last school year, they had twelve reported cases of sex trafficking in the high school. That’s a city of a population of 12,000 people—that’s the population; think about the size of the high school. Twelve reported cases. That’s children, ranging from fourteen to eighteen, being sex trafficked in greater Minnesota. And as you move closer to St. Cloud and the Twin Cities metro—hotbeds for transportation—those numbers only go up.

So education, right? A lot of it is also challenging society’s perceptions. We have to start challenging that every day in our own circles. “Locker room talk” is not okay. The further sexualization of small children should be concerning to everybody. This is going on everywhere: in the entertainment industry, and even toys. It’s sick.

Think about your profession. Are there ways you could get training? For example, are you an EMT or a first responder? This is one thing I’ve always wondered: why aren’t these people trained in identifying the signs of sex trafficking? Hotel workers. Hospitality workers. Why aren’t they mandated reporters? If a lot of this activity is occurring in hotels, they should be the first line of defense. Just continue the education, show people how live and how real this issue really is, and how it affects everybody—bring those connections. Like with pipeline construction: when transient populations of men with excessive money come through small communities like this, these rates go up, our women go missing more frequently. And there’s no accountability. Not for these big extractive industries, and not for the individuals doing it. So we also need to fight the things that further exacerbate these conditions for our communities.

You can join the fight to stop Line 3. I cannot stress that enough. I was living in Cass Lake when Enbridge came through. They were doing some maintenance on one of those pipelines—for those of you who don’t know, they have an entire corridor that runs through Minnesota, and there’s six pipelines in that corridor. So they came through Cass Lake doing maintenance on one of those lines, and while I was living there I was constantly told: “Don’t go anywhere by yourself, don’t be out after dark, and don’t be going anywhere with these guys that are coming into town.” Like, that’s how real it is.

And the way that Enbridge is going to be housing their “employees” throughout this process is only designed to alleviate liability for the company. Normally they will erect something called a “man camp.” They’ll clear some land and throw down a bunch of trailers for these men who are coming to do this work—but that entails some responsibility on the company for what’s happening on that property. So when Line 3 comes through, they are not doing that. Instead they are going to be housing their workers in hotels, resorts, and campsites along the route. That will deflect any liability or accountability for anything that happens where these men are staying onto the property owners and away from the company. We don’t need that.

TM: I live in the worst part of the Fond du Lac reservation. I live in a place called “the compound,” and it’s set up as a prison yard so that they’re able to monitor what we do every day. There are floodlights that are very, very triggering if you were out at Standing Rock. And being in open opposition of Enbridge Line 3 puts me in a very scary situation, because even doing work that is recognized and loved by my community, I risk banishment from my own reservation for being in open opposition of a pipeline that the tribal government is in agreement with.

That being said: their agreement was a Sophie’s Choice. They were forced into that agreement. It was: “Either you allow us to do this or we’re just going to do it this way.” So the Reservation Business Committee made their choice, but the people of this reservation did not. We did not have any say over this pipeline. We already have six pipelines coming through this reservation, and as Mysti spoke on, every time infrastructure such as Line 3, Line 4, Line 5, KXL, DAPL goes up, that increases the statistics we as Indigenous people face by 22%. That means every time these white Enbridge trucks go past, I have to be on alert. I have to be on alert to watch for predatory behavior. When they drive past my communities, not only are they trespassing ground sacred to me and my community, but their eyes are trespassing the children of this community. I’ve seen that for myself.

Just two years ago they were here doing “integrity digs,” and we saw an increase in both sex and drug trafficking. This is a community that’s already devastated by both. Almost every single one of my neighbors has been trafficked themselves or knows someone who has, has been an addict themselves or knows someone. So the community that I’m currently living in is very at risk for all of these things. You know, I’m raising my children here. Once the livestream stops and the nonprofits leave, I’m still going to be standing here on Ojibwe lands, fighting for a future for my children, hoping to god that the waters can still breathe, and that there’s not another woman who’s been snatched up and gone missing.

All images via Gitchigumi Scouts (Facebook)

S I M I L A R:

2 responses to “Voices from the Frontlines: MMIWR in Minnesota”

  1. […] done that. The result is a phenomenon that has not been quantified well but is quite widespread: Indigenous women, queer and two-spirit people going missing and getting murdered in Indian country. There is real need for these issues to be […]

  2. […] impacts on Indigenous women—sexual violence both by workers but also by local police forces. This has been a huge issue for a lot of Indigenous women who are protesting or contesting the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure through their […]

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