The fate of Renee: A tragic story of a ‘Stolen Sister’ in my own family
“Part of the problem is racism. Natives are still not seen as human. The dehumanization of our people everywhere in our country and they think nothing of it. We’re real, we’re here, we’re not sexualized objects. We are human.”
Renee was a Tuscarora Haudenosaunee that went missing Christmas Day in 1974 in New Haven, Indiana. Her sister, Earla, was to be married soon and the family was worried about finding their missing daughter, with plans to postpone the wedding till she could be found. Renee was only 12 when her body was discovered at a party on December 28th, 1974. She had been drugged and she only had hard candy in her stomach when she was discovered in a bathtub at a house party.
Renee Printup was my aunt. Renee’s sister, Earla, is my mother. Renee was discovered on December 28th and was later buried on New Years Eve Day, my mother’s scheduled wedding day.
Stories from those in attendance at the party state a certain non-Native man, whom we shall call Eric, was looking to “be with” Renee, who was a carbon copy of my mother, only Renee was five years younger. The man who drugged Renee was never held accountable in a court of law but committed suicide with a gun one year later.
“He had tried to do to me — what he did to Renee — in the past,” my mother, Earla Printup, said. “He was my age.”
Everyone, but my family, knew where she was. My mother said, “The police didn’t look for her. They knew Renee was a runaway and was with Eric’s sister. Because she considered a runaway, they did not go to look for her at the house. She was there three days unsupervised. The police never followed through, she was just another statistic.”
It was at the house party that the two were hosting that she wound up dead.
Sadly, Renee’s story is something common in Indian Country
There are approximately 1,400 recorded cases of MMIW between 1980 and 2012, but advocacy groups have estimated that there are actually 4,000 to over 5,000 cases. Native women makeup only 4.3% of the female population but are 16% of female homicide victims and 11.3% of missing women.
Every week I open Twitter and see another Native family pleading with people to share a post looking for a stolen sister — a term used exclusively for Native women that have gone missing). There are multiple Twitter accounts devoted to resharing and bringing awareness to MMIW. There was a march on February 14th of 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to bring awareness to the cause. Even then people scoff at the notion of MMIW.
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen sentiments such as this on social media: “Well maybe if Native men stopped raping your women, your rape numbers would go down.”
According to SeedingSovereignty.org, over 90% percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime and 86% of those women are sexually assaulted by a non-Native offender.
As a Native woman, such high numbers of troubling statistics cause me to ask many questions:
Why is no one getting charged with a crime if this keeps happening?
First, if a sexual assault or an abduction takes place on tribal lands (as many of these do), the non-Native perpetrator gets off scot-free due to a loophole in the federal law that states a tribal government cannot prosecute non-tribal members. Because the crime takes place on tribal land (not to be confused with federal land) the federal government will not step in and take over the prosecution.
Second, non-Native men have been charged and confessed on tape to rape and murder and have been declared innocent by a non-Native jury, such as the Tina Fontaine case. They are getting charged, but again, thanks to these loopholes in the colonial government’s system, they go free.
So you might say: Why is this the first time I’m hearing of this?
Ever heard of Pocahontas? In my view, she is one of the original missing and murdered indigenous women cited by history. The tale that Disney puts forward has mostly been debunked. Pocahontas never saved John Smith. The real story is that she was only about 9-years-old when John Smith arrived and actually had a Native husband and a child at the age of about 16. Because John Smith was brutalizing Native chiefs and stealing food at gunpoint, the settlers began to fear retaliation. They knew having Powhatan’s daughter would guarantee their safety. As a result, they kidnapped her, indoctrinated her, baptized her as Rebecca and married her off to John Rolfe.
There are even disputes over how she died: colonial records say that she died of chickenpox on the voyage back from England, but tribal records and Powhatan people have disputed this claim, implying something more nefarious in her last few days. After a year in England and promises were made to finance further voyages to the colonies, Pocahontas, age 19, was no longer needed. After a dinner with John Rolfe and Captain Argall (the man who originally kidnapped her,) an otherwise healthy Native woman ate dinner, but then shortly after, vomited and died. She was taken back to England and buried, never having seen her father again.
The family is affected by Stolen Sisters
When a family has a stolen sister, it can tear that family apart, especially back in those days when there wasn’t such a big support network as there is today. My mother was the product of interracial marriage in the ’50s and felt as if there were interracial tensions between her Native family on the reserve and her white farming family.
“Ma and Dad were never the same,” my mother sighed. “They weren't ever the closest couple. But that's when they really started to fall apart and began living together separately. They were fighting more, and it was after that when Daddy had his stroke. He got really ill.”
Mom described it at the time that, “When you lose a child, it's like losing an arm or a leg. It feels like losing a part of you forever.”
Being a mother now, I know what she was trying to say. You can’t describe the grief. And with Renee, it was true for so many reasons. It fractured our family.
While MMIW is seen as a modern phenomenon, Renee’s story is sad proof that it has been around for decades, even if the families don’t want to acknowledge it.
“I never looked at Renee as part of MMIW, though she is,” my mother said. “We didn't have the MMIW hashtag and movement back then. We didn't grow up on the rez. Our people have been so scattered. It hasn't been until recent times with social media that we've been able to network and connect the dots. Social media has changed it for us,” she said.
The importance of social media
Social media has been a huge tool for Native communities as was shown with such internationally-recognized efforts as #NoDAPL and #StandWithStandingRock.
Recently, two separate cases of missing women from Six Nations — of which Tuscarora belong — had multiple fliers and accounts devoted to bringing them home. Jane* and Alice* were found alive in states beyond where they went missing. Finding Jane and Alice would not have been accomplished if it were not for social media and #NativeTwitter or the #MMIW efforts across the country.
Horribly, MMIW is not a rare thing. Many families are lucky if their loved ones show up alive, let alone at all.
Renee is one of the many stories of girls who never made it home alive. My family was affected forever.
Some of the people and efforts I support and follow for sources of information on MMIW are:
The Red Ribbon Alert App (as described by their GoFundMe page) “will help combat the crisis of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Relatives throughout the United States, and hopefully Canada and Mexico in early 2019, and as the database grows throughout the whole world. The app is not only designed to spread information on current missing individuals but also to give the app user tools to protect themselves in situations where they feel they are in danger.”
For over four years, @DelSchilling has tweeted about MMIW awareness every single day. As far as I have seen, she has never missed a single twenty-four hour period in over four years. She posts regularly about #MMIW and often provides resources helpful to Indian Country.
As described on their website: the Native Women's Wilderness was created “to bring Native women together to share our stories, support each other, and learn from one another as we endeavor to explore and celebrate the wilderness and our native lands.”
They have a page dedicated to MMIW with a list of resources and statistics as well as graphics you share to assist in promoting awareness.
*Names changed due to the request from families
Follow freelance writer C.A. Printup (Tuscarora Haud) on Twitter - @DontWriteDown