BEMIDJI, Minn. — Hundreds of people gathered from all around the country — with some from as far away as California — by the Lake Bemidji waterfront on Wednesday for a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women rally to show support for families affected by these all-too-frequent tragedies.
Attendees were primarily dressed in red and held signs with messages like, “No more stolen sisters,” “Protect all that is sacred,” and “We are all related.” Some held cardboard cutouts of red dresses, many others also held up poster boards with pictures of missing or murdered loved ones on them. Some had red handprints, a symbol of MMIW, painted over their mouths and cheeks.
The annual gathering is meant to bring attention to the disproportionate amount of violence that is perpetrated against Indigenous women.
The event, which was hosted by MMIW 218, usually takes place around Valentine’s Day each year, but due to frigid temperatures in February, a scaled-down, stationary march was held instead, with the full event being postponed to May 5.
Simone Senogles of the Indigenous Environmental Network was one of the organizers of this year’s event and said she thought this was the sixth MMIW event held in Bemidji. Ordinarily, participants would march, but due to COVID-19 and certain event activities, this year’s event was a stationary one at Paul Bunyan Park.
“Over the years I would say it’s been growing,” organizer Tamika Jo Andy said of the local MMIW movement back in February 2021. “This is a conversation that needs to happen in Bemidji, because Bemidji is surrounded by three tribes, and we need to inform the Bemidji community, not just Native Americans, we need the whole community.”
May 5 was selected for the rally, as it has recently been recognized as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.
Wednesday, President Joe Biden published the following proclamation: “Today, thousands of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native Americans continue to cry out for justice and healing. On Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, we remember the Indigenous people who we have lost to murder and those who remain missing and commit to working with Tribal Nations to ensure any instance of a missing or murdered person is met with swift and effective action.”
Tears and hugs, as well as dancing and laughter, filled the air in front of the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues. Attendees participated in a round dance and listened reverently to healing songs.
A healing lodge, which was gifted from an MMIW group in California, was on prominent display, and participants were invited to paint their handprints on the lodge in memory or support of their loved ones.
“(The people from California) came all the way here to give us this,” Senogles said. “We painted it red for MMIW, and we (painted) jingle dress dancers on ours because [they] are healing dresses for Ojibwe people, and we often bring it out when we're trying to heal as a community. And so we thought it would be fitting to have that on the healing lodge.”
Senogles said the lodge would be set up at different events around the area as time goes on.
Bringing people together
While in name, MMIW is about preventing violence against women, the issue affects more than just women and girls. Many carried signs in support of missing and murdered male loved ones as well as Black Lives Matter signs.
Leech Lake Nation member Arnold Dahl-Wooley said he came to also bring awareness to issues faced by the Indigenous LGBTQ and Two-Spirit community.
He said, “I was asked to come down because we're talking about the Two-Spirit. And that's historically something that's very sacred. I don’t want to forget about anybody.”
Beth Timmins from Leech Lake works in health care as the director of culture and communications at the Circle of Life care agency, and said she sees MMIW as the No. 1 health crisis affecting Indigenous women.
Timmins described the event as a networking opportunity for people and organizations involved in safety and domestic violence prevention.
Many people at the event were affected by the issues in one way or another, Timmins said.
Several community organizations were at the gathering, including Bemidji-based Support Within Reach, handing out flyers and explaining resources available to people in the community.
Timmins said she hopes events like this will lead people to talk more openly about domestic violence.
“This is an issue that nobody wants to talk about,” she said, “and we have to talk about this. This is why this happens because nobody wants to talk about it, nobody wants to address it. We need to quit shaming people so they talk about domestic violence and (seek) help.”
She added that many feel they don’t want to be an activist, but in order to make progress, someone has to be. “(People become activists when they) lose some human right or something you care really deeply about has been infringed upon,” she said.
A wide-spread issue
According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, Indigenous women are murdered at 10 times the national average and four out of five Native American women are affected by violence today.
Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show homicide is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native girls and women ages 10 to 24 and the fifth-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 25 and 34.
Former President Donald Trump signed an executive order in November 2019, creating a national task force to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Not long after that, the Minnesota MMIW Task Force met for the first time on Sept. 19, 2019, which started a 15-month timeline to write a report guiding law enforcement and the Legislature on the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Nearly a year and a half later, the Minnesota task force presented the results from the report to state lawmakers on Jan. 26, 2021, during a committee hearing. The results affirmed that the national trend of MMIW plagues Minnesota, too.
Minnesota is home to 11 tribal nations, as well as many Native Americans who live outside of reservations. While American Indian women and girls comprise roughly 1% of Minnesota's population, 8% of murdered women and girls in Minnesota between 2010 and 2018 were Native American, the task force found.
The task force also reported during the hearing that during any given month between 2012 and 2020, 27 to 54 American Indian women and girls were missing in Minnesota.