Essay

Their Names Cover 90 Pages

Indigenous poets confront an epidemic of missing and murdered women.
Collage illustration of silhouettes of women with images of nature and paper in the background.

In late December of 2012, around the time of the winter solstice, Anna Marie Sewell went out for a walk. Night had fallen early in the Alberta Avenue neighborhood, a crumbling corner of Edmonton, Alberta, made up largely of Native Americans. A bitter wind whipped down the streets and alleyways. A giant hole still marked the pavement where a water main had burst days before. Sewell recognized another pedestrian walking in the night, an older woman wrapped in a blanket and hunched against the cold. “Because I knew her, I knew that she was hunched up against other things, too,” says Sewell, a former Edmonton poet laureate who is half Ojibway Listuguj Mi’gmap First Nation Quebec. “She was white, but she was living through these things that happen to [indigenous people]. I felt powerless to say anything to her. I felt to myself that this little moment, actually wailing in the cold and in the dark, meant something.”

Sewell went home and began composing a poem. “I started writing to unpeel what it meant to be her, but also what it meant to be myself,” she says. “And as I wrote, it began to unfold that it was relevant to a larger issue.”

That larger issue is the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women throughout North America, particularly in Sewell’s home country. The most recent data from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) indicates that in the past 30 years, 1,017 aboriginal women have been murdered in Canada, with 174 more reported missing. Indigenous women comprise roughly 25 percent of Canada’s female homicide victims and 11 percent of female missing persons cases, despite representing only 4.3 percent of the country’s total female population. Those numbers are more than three years old, though, and potentially underrepresentative. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has done its own research and believes that closer to 4,000 women have disappeared or been killed. One stretch of Highway 16, a narrow road that cuts east to west across British Columbia en route to the Pacific Ocean, is dubbed the “Highway of Tears” because an estimated 18 to 50 women, most of them native and teenagers, have vanished or been killed there since 1969. Strewn along the remote mountain and deep woodland pass are faded photos of missing women and billboards warning native girls not to hitchhike.

Most of the cases have gone unsolved. The enormity of the loss—so many absent mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers—is shared by surviving aboriginals of all tribes across Canada. Even for indigenous women who haven’t lost a loved one, the crisis’s underlying racism and sexism is all too familiar. “I wanted to make people commit and say, ‘This is us,’” says Sewell. “‘This is us in a mining town or a prairie city or in the heart of the jungle, this is us too. None of us gets home until we all get home.’”

The unifying “we” is the key refrain in Sewell’s poem “Washing the World,” inspired by her blanket-bundled neighbor and dedicated to the missing and murdered:

these things we gather in this blanket
bone and sand and sage
we wash the world, between us
hold this blanket, fill it with our tears
and when we have cried
from one dawn to the next

then we will rise, and we will dance

until they’re home, until they all are home 

lay your hands upon the truth of beauty’s loss
heavy, soft as moss, this blanket
full of tears and dust and dying
becomes ocean cradle, healing, dark
the promise, washed clean by our sorrow

Sewell is one of dozens of indigenous poets and artists writing about this devastating tragedy. Her work seeks to give voice to the countless thousands who now have none. “You can say, ‘Here is this issue, the sociological and legal aspect,’” she says, “but always to the person experiencing it, it’s personal. I realized why people pray. I really saw in that moment that one of the necessary uses of prayer is to call on the thing that you know will get you through.”

***

Each name in Marcie Rendon’s poem “Trigger Warning Or Genocide is Worse Than Racism” falls like a lone drop into an overflowing reservoir of grief:

                         Tina Michelle Fontaine, 15,
Sagkeeng First Nation Manitoba. went missing July 2014
her body found wrapped in a bag in Winnipeg’s Red River Aug. 17, 2014.
no arrests have been announced

                                                  Sometimes, sorrow consumes my soul

Angela Poorman 29-year-old mother of three
found laying on the sidewalk in critical condition
Winnipeg’s North End Dec. 14, 2014.
stabbed to death, No charges have been laid

Brandy Wesaquate, 28, was last seen leaving a house party in Regina on New Year’s Day
2012.
she was born a man and identifies as a woman.

Rendon is a former recipient of the Loft’s Inroads Writers of Color Award for Native Americans and a member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation of northern Minnesota. She frequently travels to Canada to visit friends, from whom she first learned of the Highway of Tears a few years ago. But she has long witnessed the pain that haunts indigenous communities. In the late 1980s, a serial killer raped and murdered three Native American women in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, just south of downtown. Victims’ bodies were found on the railroad tracks two blocks from where Rendon lived with her young children. To this day, according to data from the nonprofit Human Trafficking Center, around 25 percent of the women arrested for prostitution in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, identify as Native American despite natives constituting only 2.2 percent of the county’s total population.

“There’s this misconception that because we don’t exist in the world’s mind view that we don’t exist,” says Rendon. “Currently, it’s our women who are trafficked and our women who are making up the prison population. This is just an issue that’s always been there.”

“Trigger Warning” continues:

don’t tell me you don’t see indians here
your only wish
is that we would
silently disappear

It’s something of a found poem. Three years ago, Rendon was scheduled to read at a spoken word show at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Originally, she wanted to draw attention to the crisis by reading all the names from the recently released RCMP inquiry into the murders and disappearances, but she realized that all of them wouldn’t fit into her three-minute slot. Her solution was to abridge the list of statistics while retaining its flat, repetitive cadence. Each name she included represents dozens of others not named in the poem. And each is a sharp indictment of government inaction. “Trigger Warning,” which lists only seven names, interspersed with Rendon’s admonishments, concludes matter-of-factly: “Their names, single spaced, cover 90 typewritten pages.”

“With poetry, you can shape it another way, make it easier to process,” Rendon says. “And with poetry as spoken word, you have an audience. Instead of 90 pages, I can say it in three minutes, still providing hard-hitting context for the larger issue.”

Poet and activist Gregory Scofield, a member of the Manitoba Métis now living in Ontario, sounds a similar drumbeat with his “Name A Day” Twitter project. On a regular basis, sometimes every day, he tweets the name, age, and, occasionally, the last known location of a missing woman, along with the caption “find our missing sister” and the hashtag #MMIW (missing and murdered indigenous women). “You never know who knows these women and where that information travels,” he says. “And for the ones who have been killed, it serves as a way to honor these women.”

It also raises awareness across cultures. “There are still a lot of people across North America who know nothing about this issue,” says Scofield, who adds that it’s incumbent on Native Americans to educate others about these cases. “The issue is tender. It’s important that people are respectful of those stories and the families whose loved ones are lost or missing. I see that as a very sacred issue. As indigenous artists, we’re using our voices to talk about those issues. At this time, it’s important for artists outside the community to take a step back and listen and learn and witness what is going on.”

***

Of course, white indifference isn’t new. Even many outsiders who are aware of, and sympathetic to, the unpunished crimes against indigenous women don’t understand how deep these wounds go. It’s not just a contemporary issue either. “It’s been going on since the time of first contact [with whites],” says Scofield. “Indigenous women have always been seen as disposable, as property. Physical, emotional, and spiritual violence has always been thrust upon them. That dates back hundreds and hundreds of years.” Scofield notes the disproportionate number of cases, both solved and unsolved, of native women disappearing from the 1950s, 40s, 30s, 20s, and on back. David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, published in 2017, recounts the organized shootings and poisonings of wealthy Osage landowners over oil in Oklahoma during the 1920s, horrific crimes that were never satisfactorily solved. “That really speaks to the systemic racism and sexism that indigenous women have faced since the time of contact,” Scofield says.

Today, those colonial attitudes manifest in the hardships within native communities and government reservations. In the United States, one in four Native Americans lives in poverty. Public services on reservations, including health care, are drastically underfunded. In 2013, Indian Health Services (IHS) spent an average of $2,849 per patient, compared to $7,717 per patient nationally. According to a 2015 report from Statistics Canada, a government data agency, the risk of avoidable death for First Nations adults in that country is five times that of non-indigenous Canadians. First Nations adults are also more than twice as likely to die from “avoidable causes” such as alcohol and drugs. Rates of fetal alcohol syndrome among native infants are significantly higher than that of babies in the non-indigenous population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Native American male youth are twice as likely to die from suicide. And, per the US Justice Department, one in three native women has been raped, and three out of five will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. A majority of these crimes are committed by non-natives who, until recently, were largely exempt from prosecution in tribal courts.

Scofield and Sewell also see a connection between missing and endangered women and the hot-button topic in native-colonial relations: resource extraction. Many of the towns where crimes against women occur, including Prince George in British Columbia, along the Highway of Tears, are resource towns built around oil drilling and mining sites. As Sewell explains, “Mining companies come and bring in workers just for the money and the job, but not with the idea that this is their home.” That nomadic state of mind leads to indifference toward the land and those who inhabit it. “There’s the insidious idea that it’s man’s right to take from the Earth and from the women,” Sewell says.

The Albertan Cree/Métis poet Marilyn Dumont captures outsiders’ mistreatment of native women in her poem “Helen Betty Osborne.” Osborne was a 19-year-old Cree from Manitoba who was sexually assaulted and murdered by white men in 1971. Dumont’s poem, from her collection A Really Good Brown Girl (1996), is sort of an open letter to Osborne. The first stanza starts, “Betty, if I set out to write this poem about you,” and the penultimate stanza concludes:

it might be about the ‘townsfolk’     (gentle word)
townsfolk who ‘believed native girls were easy’
and ‘less likely to complain if a sexual proposition led to violence.’

A 2014 study found that violent crime in so-called oil boom counties in North Dakota and Montana rose an average of 18.5 percent between 2006 and 2012 when companies moved in crews to tap oil and natural gas reserves. Meanwhile, violence in counties without drilling or mining dropped 25.6 percent.

“It correlates horribly across Canada and the United States, as well,” says Sewell. “Rape the women; rape the land.”

***

Besides being a common denominator in these killings and disappearances, racism also inhibits the prevention and investigation of the crimes. A 2015 United Nations report found that Canadian aboriginal women between the ages of 25 and 44 are five times more likely to experience violence and die as a result, and that in 39 percent of the cases, the perpetrator (when found at all) is a non-aboriginal. The report also denounced the Canadian government’s response as “inadequate,” and further stated: “It was very evident to the Committee that the lasting consequences of the sexual and racial discrimination against the aboriginal community during the colonial and post-colonial periods has been a significant contributory factor to the disproportionately high levels of violence by both State and non-State actors on aboriginal women, and the way in which such violence has been, for the most part, treated with impunity.”

The report details “critical” failures of law enforcement: failures in report-taking, failures to consider all investigative strategies, and failures of internal review and public accountability. In some cases, the UN committee found that officers assumed that missing aboriginal women were runaways or that the disappearances were the victims’ own faults because of their “so-called high-risk lifestyles.”

In 2017, the Canadian government responded to the UN critique by commissioning a new $53.8 million, two-year study into the issue, but even that was plagued with delays, communications snafus, and procedural impediments. Frustrated families of survivors have demanded a complete reboot of the entire process, prompting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to more or less apologize for the study’s failures and that of the government as a whole. He agrees that Canada has, for decades, dealt “inadequately” with the issue of missing and murdered aboriginals.

“There’s a lot of racism around when indigenous people go missing,” says Tanaya Winder, a Colorado poet of Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Paiute heritage. She mimics investigators’ boilerplate response: “‘All of the women are putting themselves in these situations.’ ‘She’s probably an alcoholic or ran off with this man.’”

That’s why when Winder first researched this subject in 2015, she was struck by the case of Loretta Saunders, an Inuk from Labrador in Nova Scotia. Saunders was found murdered along the Trans-Canada Highway in 2014. She had struggled with alcohol, drugs, and homelessness, but had pulled her life together and returned to school. She was 26 years old, a student who happened to be writing her honors thesis on missing and murdered indigenous women.

“The police couldn’t just say it was only uneducated women,” Winder says. Saunders’s murderers, a pair of non-native tenants who owed her rent on a Halifax apartment, choked, beat, and suffocated her when she came to collect. In a rare show of justice, the murderers were caught and sentenced to life in prison.

In response, Winder wrote “A Lament for Laura and the Disappeared,” a poem of defiance built around the hard data of the tragedy:

I am not murdered. I am not missing

And so I will speak even to those who won’t listen.
I will speak because
I am not murdered. I am not missing
I am one part of a thread of voices
Of bodies or women standing up to speak for those who are murdered
Those who are missing
Those whose families are missing them
We are here to support our stolen sisters
Young native girls and aboriginal women

Aboriginal Canadian women are 5 times more likely to be violently attacked than non-aboriginal women

Like many poets, Winder has done more than just write about these cases. In 2015, she helped organize the Sing Our Rivers Red exhibition in the Fargo/Moorhead area of North Dakota and Minnesota. The event featured food, spoken word and musical performances, and murals from Native American artists. The centerpiece was an exhibit of 1,181 single earrings, one for each indigenous woman “stolen.” The piece was so popular that it still tours events all around the United States and Canada. “Anytime someone is raising an issue, there are facts, but they are hard to wrap your head around,” Winder says. “This is a visual representation. Each earring is different. Each one is beautiful and brings joy—but it’s missing its other half. With the amount of time it takes to set up each earring, you feel the weight of that number.”

***

All of the research and cold statistics, all of the names on that staggering list, can’t convey the despair that runs beneath these boomtowns, prairie villages, badland reservations, and the Highway of Tears. Sometimes the only way violence becomes real to people is when it happens to them. That was the case with Scofield, who lost his aunt in 1998 when she died under mysterious circumstances. Her death was ruled a homicide but was never fully investigated. Scofield won’t talk about the details. He wrote a poem that he hopes will help those on the outside better understand his unfathomable sadness. The poem, “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars (nikâwi’s song),” begins:

She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is laughing more than the men who beat her
She is ten horses breaking open the day
She is new to her bones
She is holy in the dust.

“I’ve always said as a poet, if we’re lucky, we’re gifted with one or two poems during our career. This was a gift,” he says. “I wrote it in 15 to 20 minutes. It’s about speaking and honoring the women who have been taken through violence, through racism, through sexism. It’s very much a ceremony of their resilience and their resistance, traveling from this realm, making their travel beyond the Milky Way and finding a place of peace and a place of rest.”

Scofield has done his share of activism, of showing up to speak and read at rallies. His greatest contribution, though, is poetry that expresses the profound grief that he and thousands of others share. “It’s been incredible to see how that poem is traveling,” he says. Indeed, the piece has been widely shared on social media, has been put to music, and was even featured on an art gallery-sponsored billboard in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “The message of the poem and the spirit of the poem is traveling. I believe in the ceremony of what we are creating and the ceremony of creation.”

Scofield has witnessed incredible change in the past two decades. When he first started writing about missing and murdered indigenous women, he says few people beyond the victims’ families thought about the crisis. Now, partially through the works of these poets and many others like them, the issue is finally drawing attention. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Scofield says. “We need to look in the mirror and confront the impact of colonization and address the effects that have come to affect us all. We’re at a point right now where we’re trying to find ways to heal.”

Originally Published: October 8th, 2018

Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Popular Mechanics, Politico, and espnW.