The groundswell of mass protest calling for justice following the murder of George Floyd was estimated to be the largest since the civil rights protests of 1968. While the calls for justice focused on the prosecution of the individuals responsible for Mr. Floyd’s death, social justice activists also called for more than individual accountability of the police officers. The movement is calling for fundamental change to the racialized system of justice legitimizing state violence against African Americans. NIWRC released our statement refusing to accept the death of George Floyd at the hands of police as ‘normal.’
Indigenous peoples, specifically women, have, for centuries, suffered genocide legitimized under U.S. federal law and policies. The theft of Tribal lands and resources, massacres of women and children, criminalization of Indigenous spirituality, forced removal of children to government boarding schools, were ‘normalized’ as necessary government actions against Indigenous peoples and their Nations. NIWRC stands firmly grounded against violence and oppression in all forms—police brutality included. We stand in solidarity with our Black relatives in calling for justice for our brother George Floyd.
Like police murders of African Americans, violence against Native women also rests on a social tolerance for such killings, and a legal system developed over time to legitimize such government actions. In 2009, the ‘Apology to Native Peoples’ by Congress recognized the years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes; and apologized for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples. In 2009, Congress also acknowledged and apologized to African-Americans for the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The justice system and infrastructures by which it operates systemically allows such violence to continue over time.
The ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) is one example of such social tolerance. Normalization of the spectrum of violence committed against Native women as a population is the cultural foundation of this ongoing violence.
“Bad people commit these horrible crimes against Native women, but it is the system that allows it to happen generation after generation.”—Malinda Limberhand, Mother of Hanna Harris, murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013.
The disparities in access to safety and justice extend to all aspects of life—social, economic, and political. COVID-19 was one more demonstration of the reality that not all people, not all communities are equal. NIWRC, like other advocacy organizations, understood the dangers of this new reality on victims of domestic violence and sexual violence. As a social justice movement, we faced a new challenge—how to safeguard victims of abuse who are locked down in the same living space as their abusers 24/7. Shelter-in-place orders confining victims to shared space with abusers increase the potential for physical and emotional abuse. Such orders also limit their access to a network of support victims rely on, including advocates, but also friends and family members who provide support.
“It’s like a double whammy. All the inequities we know of, layered with a virus that thrives on such living conditions of no running water, lack of available housing, and healthcare.”—Elizabeth Carr, Senior Native Affairs Advisor for NIWRC.
Across Tribal communities, service providers and Tribal governments worked creatively to meet these challenges. NIWRC, joined with our sister organizations to take action on a national policy level to support Indian tribes in accessing federal resources for Tribal services. Fortunately, the hard work of the last twenty years has raised the country’s awareness to understand advocates as essential workers.
Confronted by the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and murders such as George Floyd, it is clear that change must reach farther than individual accountability to include fundamental changes to the underlying system. The legal reforms must go hand-in-hand with cultural re-education of the truth of American history.
In 2020, NIWRC will continue to advocate for legal reform through efforts to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act to include foundational changes such as restoring criminal authority over non-Indian committing violence against Native women. The success of these reform efforts is tied to increased awareness of violence against Native women. On May 5, 2020—the 4th National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women—24.5 million people were reached through our campaign via our unique hashtag, #MMIWGActionNow. The 2020 National Day of Awareness is one example of national actions to increase awareness we must organize.
As we look ahead to what many predict as a long summer, we have the opportunity to create the changes needed for social justice to be achieved. While holding individuals accountable, we can and must reach beyond the surface of individual acts of violence to understand and change the system of governance that allows such violence to continue systemically.
Jacqueline “Jax” Agtuca
Editor, Restoration of Native Sovereignty and Safety for Native Women Magazine