Khadijah Britton is still missing

Instagram account @UrbanNativeEra creates positive images representing Native people as dignified and empowered. Activists quotes for this story describe low Native self-worth as a factor in the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. L to R: Model Alexandra Sage Accardi, Apache and Sicilian; representation activist Alicia Delgado, Apache; educator Corinne Oestreich, Oglala Lakota and Mohawk, educator; hip hop artists Calina Lawrence, Suquamish; and public banking activist Jackie Fielder, Lakota. (Photo by Joey Montoya of Urban Native Era)

ICT OPINION

The epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women

Chelsea Tayrien Hicks 

Osage Nation of Oklahoma

On the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California, rumors of Khadijah Britton’s whereabouts fly like crows even now, more than two years after her disappearance. She was last seen February of 2018 leaving at gunpoint with her ex-boyfriend, who she reported for assault with a hammer the week prior. Those who saw her say he forced her into a car and drove off.

Britton’s name still waves on banners at pow wows and Native gatherings in the San Francisco Bay Area, and her story is representative of an epidemic described under the hashtag #MMIW: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. I first saw Britton’s name written in red marker in a list of other missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Native American Health Center in Richmond, California. That was in May of 2018. Eight more Native California women went missing that year, and I began to check the FBI’s database of missing persons.

The terror of missing and murdered Indigenous women haunt Indigenous communities across the Americas. None of the women on the wall were under search by the federal government, yet the Urban Indian Health Institute estimates that 5,712 Indigenous women were missing in 2016. Of all those cases, only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice (DOJ) database.

The UN’s 2017 session on Indigenous women recommended that states establish a monitoring mechanism to address MMIWG, but governments are failing to note, much less remedy, the violence. Tribal people like Ryan RedCorn of the Osage Nation are trying to get the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed. He argues that Native women are missing because the dominant culture doesn’t understand how to value them as a population. There may be a de facto cultural “value” of Native women, demonstrated by prominent Indigenous artists like Natalie Diaz and Terese Marie Mailhot to Congresswomen Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, but underrepresentation in film and media send a message that Native women don’t matter and, worse, are invisible.

The majority of missing women’s names are not printed by major public news outlets. Connie Hostler, Britton’s mom, thinks news stories would pressure the FBI to acknowledge Britton. She repeatedly called the FBI to request that they add her daughter to the Kidnappings & Missing Persons' section, but local authorities did not request federal help. Mendocino County officials told Hostler to stop calling. Neither the FBI nor the county responded to requests for comment. Eventually, they posted a reward for $85,000, and an additional $25,000 if the information leads to a conviction.

When law enforcement fails to remedy a case, tribal people use MMIWG Facebook groups to circulate digital versions of flyers and spread information across cities via posters. Marches honor the lives of women and encourage living victims to return home. The Indigenous-lead movement Idle No More advertised 30 vigils, walks and dances in winter 2019 alone.

Indigenous men also go and stay missing. One of my uncles is an active meth user considered to be missing in Tulsa, and no one in my family knows if he’s dead or alive. We searched for him when I was a pre-teen, knocking on doors of run-down homes. He is Osage. Like my uncle, Britton struggled with a meth addiction at the time of her abduction. Her ex-boyfriend was also her dealer, and in a position to control, rape, and beat her.

Labels like addict help explain why the epidemic continues. Native women are often seen as promiscuous and unstable, prone to situations of domestic violence, or else as traditionalists with enough knowledge and healing to sew, cook, pray, weave, and speak their tribal languages. The distance between the first and the last is difficult to traverse and hard to complicate.

Theda NewBreast is a female traditional consultant with the Native Wellness Institute who grew up in Oakland and helps Native women recover from abusive situations. I had my own counseling session with her and told her about my father’s wooden board kept beside my bed for the purpose of punishment, and my early childhood laboring on his construction sites. He was hitting me bare-bottomed at ten and eleven, and leaving me at his worksites from an early age.

NewBreast said one cause of the MMIW epidemic is abuse and trauma. I grew up hearing stories of cousins getting jumped while the mothers of the rapists watched, and a trusted neighbor assaulted me in our own home. He was our alternate emergency contact on school forms; I note this to argue that in environments where assault is common, there's a need to help victims separate from shame. By this logic, going missing is a way of leaving a life that feels too difficult to live.

Garica’s and Britton’s friend Megan Ray works in suicide prevention and says community grieving will result in fewer tragedies. But healing occurs over generations, and vulnerability is a heritable trait. My Echo—Osage for Grandmother—witnessed her mother’s murder at the end of her White stepfather’s gun. Courts don’t acknowledge her murder. Records say she disappeared.

“Disappear” is not a strong enough word to describe what has happened and is happening to Indigenous women. It’s more like we are invisible, and then we become erased.

The Sovereign Bodies Institute estimates 3,500 MMIWG cases in North America based on information from families of these women. But those 3,500 cases barely account for reservation violence. An Amnesty International report stated, “… no statistics exist specifically on sexual violence in Indian Country and available data is more likely to represent urban than rural areas.” Hanna’s Act went into effect July 1, 2019, and requires the DOJ to work with local, state, federal, and tribal law enforcement. Those responsibilities seem basic and inherent to FBI work, but it’s often easier for authorities to assume the women aren’t missing; they’re just on a bender.

It’s unethical to use abusive situations to normalize epidemics, but that is what is happening to every kind of Native woman, regardless of blood quantum, location or background. My euro nose looks more like Belle than Pocahontas and I did not grow up on my tribe’s reservation. I thought my phenotype and urban childhood would save me from the fear, but I see flyers for girls who look like me on MMIW pages.

A community worker at the Richmond Native American Health Center, Catherine Duran, said Indigenous victim-blaming must be addressed. “If it’s a Native woman and she’s drinking and she gets kidnapped or raped, it’s supposedly her fault. But the image is that if it’s a White woman, it was the Uber driver’s fault. We deserve equity.”

Richmond is part of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Duran has an important job in helping to make urban Natives visible. Today, 71 percent of Natives live in cities (the Relocation Act displaced many tribal people). A Fargo police representative told UIHI that if race is not recorded, it defaults in the system to White. The Duwamish in Seattle, Ohlone people in San Francisco, and Tongva peoples in Los Angeles are federally unrecognized tribes. Urban-tribal dwellers of those tribes who go missing on their own homelands are uncounted by their cities.

The grassroots initiative in Winnipeg called “Drag the Red” offers an Indigenous solution to this violence by patrolling streets to offer women protection. Elders, leaders and intertribal health centers advise Indigenous women to make ribbon skirts, to connect to the earth as the source of healing. Red ribbon skirts symbolize missing “sisters,” and activist Marge Grow-Eppard spells it SiStars to convey a belief common among many tribes, like mine—that we come from the stars. Wearing red and marching for justice alongside sisters can be one step in healing, but it’s hard for women to move from sewing a ribbon skirt to standing up to a rapist in courts.

I made my own ribbon skirt and went to a round dance that the Facebook event described as purposed for “healing from trauma,” but I never exposed an attacker. I do not even name Britton’s suspect here, for her protection and mine. At the Round Dance, I sat beside Sacheen Littlefeather, the first person to use the Oscars for political speech. She said my skirt was beautiful. It was red with red lace overlay and orange ribbons framing blue like a sunset on the water. I was safe, but I did not feel like I was helping Khadijah Britton, and I still ran while going to my car alone in the dark afterward. Native men I know tell me to avoid other Native men I know.

The stereotypes say that we are our own abusers and murderers, and that we do all this to ourselves. Native men are not the beginning and end of the problem. The DOJ cites White men as the primary perpetrators in violence against Indigenous women, and Amnesty International finds Aboriginal women more likely than others to be killed by strangers.

Indigenous women are ready to do work for the FBI. NewBreast is willing to be trained to go through the thousands of unprocessed DNA lab kits from women who have been raped. These kits sit, unexamined, in federal warehouses, and Grow-Eppard said, “Train us Native women how to do these DNA tests. We’re more than willing to do their job.”

Meanwhile, Britton’s family has no closure and more women continue to go missing.

Erica Ober has been missing since January 30, 2019, from Howard County, Nebraska. Rhytham Bradford was last seen on January 19, 2019, in Billings, Montana. She was wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans. She has a nose piercing and scar on her right eyebrow. Shacaiah Blue Harding goes by Blue and is missing from Yellowstone County, Montana since July 23, 2018. Geraldine “Kayla” Begay has been missing since January 20, 2019, from Los Lunas, NM. Kayla is 17 years old. 

Chelsea Tayrien Hicks , Osage Nation of Oklahoma, is a fiction writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been published in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, The Believer, Yellow Medicine Review, San Francisco Weekly, and elsewhere. She has worked in tribal language revitalization for Daposka Ahnkodapi, The Osage Nation’s immersion school, and taught writing at UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis. She enjoys studying language and dancing at powwows. She will graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA Program in Creative Writing this May 2020. 

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