‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’

‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’

Pope Francis continues to advocate for a deepening awareness of and care for our common home, the earth. It is indubitable that the poor and marginalized disproportionately shoulder the burdens of ecological devastation, and the social consequences that often follow such environmental wreckage. The global south is often the center of these painful realities, and may feel removed to many readers of this paper. But such events are global phenomena and have consequences in North America.

Recently, I attended a presentation by Native American women Holy Elk Lafferty and Lissa Yellowbird Chase about the Sahnish Scouts, a self-described “citizen-led organization dedicated to finding justice for missing people and their families.” The Lakota, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and other “first nation” peoples have been devastated by sexual assault and violence that have arisen around the oil field “man camps” in the Upper Midwest and Canada. They were clear that many of these temporary dwellings contain good men who helped them in their activities advocating for their peoples. But large numbers of workers living far from any contact with their spouses, flush with disposable income, and having little to occupy their time outside of their work has led to increased problems in local communities where they arrive with little ties. Everything from alcoholism to gambling to drug abuse to prostitution becomes intensified when these camps arise in what are among the most impoverished areas of North America.  Codes of silence are strictly enforced in many cases, so as not to risk the possibility of earning money in the related industries.

Most frightening, the number of indigenous women who have gone missing simply staggers the mind. Thousands of women and young girls across Canada and the United States have simply disappeared without a trace. Statistics say that 80 percent of Native American women experience violence in their lifetimes and murder rates hover about 10 to 12 times that national average. To be clear, not all of this is due to the fossil fuel industries. But it’s undeniable that the means we have chosen to continue the unrelenting extraction of the earth’s resources in many cases exacerbates the plight of these “invisible victims.”

Holy Elk and Lissa Yellowbird spend their weekends searching the woods and badlands for bodies and advocating for transforming their communities. They have started a social media movement #MMIW – Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women —which has garnered international attention.

Though I have my own feelings about it, this is not the appropriate forum to debate the politics of the Dakota Pipeline or the legality of protests about it. But the hope is that no Catholic can in good conscience read of women and young girls being raped or disposed of like refuse and not feel a moral obligation to respond as a church.

Mistreating, marginalizing and making Native Americans invisible is not a new occurrence. It has been happening for centuries. And it is clear that many from their own communities also commit horrific acts. Of course, it cannot be attributed only to “outsiders.” No one claims this, including the most outspoken women on the matter. But the fact that even today their communities are being so ravaged by atrocities from within and without should interrogate each of our consciences, and impel us to offer solidarity and action, beyond mere “thoughts and prayers.”

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a former resident of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University in Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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