Part Three of the Five-Part MMIP Symposium Series

On May 5th, 2022 in Fargo, ND- the University of North Dakota’s Student Social Work Association (Phi Alpha) held a Missing & Murdered Indigenous Peoples Symposium. In previous week’s we have covered the introduction, prayer and the majority of Agnes Woodward’s speech. In this week’s installment of the five-part symposium we will cover the remainder or Woodward’s speech. 

The first half of Woodward’s speech primarily covered the beginnings of the MMIW movement, and can be found in the previous segment. The second half moved to speak beyond activism and how important it is for the family members of the murdered and missing to be heard to ensure changes are made. 

“So, talking about grass roots efforts and marches being the catalyst for the change that we see today, I want to just point out that when we see indigenous people marching on the street” Woodward began, “especially when it’s MMIW/MMIP March, we automatically think of activism. And- Activists are often viewed as radical and we all know how that view has led to the mistreatment of indigenous people and allies during the NoDAPL movement on Standing Rock.” She continued. 

Defining Activism

“Language constructs our thoughts, our thoughts construct our beliefs, and our beliefs inform us on how we should treat people. And how we should view people. So, the language that we use is important. Activism, in the dictionary, is really defined as a doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals. Sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.” “So, people think activism is a choice, but this movement isn’t just about fighting for justice, it’s not just about fighting for change. It is about fighting for our lives. It’s about fighting for our children, and our future.” 

The importance of the stories from relatives of the Murdered and Missing

Woodward spoke of the importance of family members in the process of change. “And it has been the family members of the missing and murdered who have brought the movement to where it is today. Families and their advocates have come forward by the thousands in Canada and the United States- to bear their grief and share their stories of unspeakable violence. And if we call these family members who carry these sacred stories activists instead of what they are- mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters- then we are taking away from that sacred relationship. Because of their truth telling and their refusal to give up on their loved ones, we know have databases. We have maps that can track our MMIW and MMIP state by state, province by province. We have statistics, we have studies that prove Indigenous People are targets of violence. We now have MMIW/MMIP specific grants, we have Savannah’s act. We have multiple national days of awareness, and most recently- we have task forces in many communities and cities and states.”

She explained that she would not share a lot on data, statistics and research- that she was present to speak to their hearts. However, she urged those in attendance to do research on their own to see the statistics. “Today, I am going to speak to your hearts. And I hope that you take with you- compassion, and empathy for those that have been hurting for a very long time. I hope that you feel encouraged to do that research and just keep in mind, with a lot of the stories that we see online- that’s often told through the lens of some body else.  The work that I do is very difficult, very heavy, but very important.” 

Woodward gave testimony of how she had been directly affected by a murdered relative. She explained that there was never justice nor what she believed to be a proper investigation- despite evidence that there was foul play her relative’s murderer. “So, I am not just here today as an advocate, I am also a family member, who carried the truth and the experiences of my family with me in this work. My aunt Eleanor Laney Ewenin was murdered on February 4th, 1982. She was found on the outskirts of Calgary, Alberta after she had been missing for several days. It was a bitterly cold night and the cold tells a story of her last moments on earth. It could be seen where a car had pulled in to a lightly traveled road outside of the city limits. It was seen on the scuffle marks on the ground and the snow that Laney had been pulled from the back seat, it showed the tire tracks of the vehicle backing out and leaving my aunt there. And then it shows the path across the field where she was trying to make it to safety because there was a building with the lights on at the edge of that field. And then it shows the place where she cradled herself before falling asleep and beginning her journey with our ancestors. No one was ever charged with her murder, the police barely investigated her case, and this really wasn’t seen as murder. It was viewed as acceptable, for an indigenous person to be found frozen. Especially if they had alcohol I their toxicology report. The dehumanization of our people has been happening since colonization.”

Woodward told a story of a conversation that she had in 2015 regarding MMIW where another individual had said “Well, if you are living a risky lifestyle, don’t you expect something like that is gonna to happen. If you are drinking or doing drugs, what do you expect?” 

Woodward explained her response to that statement “And at that time, I didn’t have the energy for the emotional labor it takes to explain the lifetime of injustices and violence that my aunt and many indigenous people have experienced for them to understand the root causes. For them to see my aunt as a deserving person of compassion, a deeply loved sister, and a cherished daughter. But also, a victim of racist Canadian government policies.” 

Beginnings of Policy Change

Woodward explained that Operation Lady Justice began in November 2019. “President Trump signed executive order 13898 forming the task force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. Aims to enhance the operation of the criminal justice system and address legitimate concerns of American Indians and Alaska Natives communities regarding missing and murdered people. Particularly missing and murdered women and girls.” She continued to explain that there were virtual hearings with input from indigenous youth, tribal leaders and family members. However, “Tribal leaders were given time to speak and anyone after was given 7 minutes to talk and share.” She also explained that one man was cut off in the middle of his story at only three minutes. “Families’ members have a right and a need to share their stories and experiences, and these hearings were not done in a trauma informed or culturally sensitive way, and I find that problematic.” She educated. “It was stated that the purpose of hearing from tribal nations was supposed to give those who were task force team members- an understanding of the scope of this issue.” 

“You will hear me, over and over, advocate for the families of the missing and murdered to be at every table in this movement. Making decisions, feeling empowered, finding healing- because again, we wouldn’t be where we are today- if it wasn’t for their truth, for their stories, for their lived experiences, we would not be here today if it was not for that. And I think that we need to continue to honor those families, honor their truth, honor the love that they have for somebody that has been murdered or is missing.” Woodward stressed.

“Deb Holland announced last year on April 1st, the formation of the new missing and murdered unit, we will have to wait to see the outcome and success of that…” In hopes that the next task force listens to the relatives of the murdered and missing more respectfully. 

“In 2016 the government of Canada launched the National Inquiry into MMIWG2S+, a final report was produced in 2019 with “the critical finding that Canada is guilty of genocide and perpetuating genocide against and on indigenous women. This report has 231 calls to justice covering systemic change and policy at every level of government and Canada’s society.” Educated Woodward. 

“They are part of the process of change” Woodward explained of the Inquiries and Tasks Forces “But the change happens on the ground, that’s why advocates and the families are so important. The work cannot stop. We have to be strategic, and our methods of engagement must be of empowerment. And it must lead to the empowerment of our indigenous relatives- especially our children.” 

“Understanding the root caused of violence of Indigenous People is vital understanding how we create solutions and breakdown barriers to justice.” Explained Woodward in regards to colonization and after effects in the US and Canada and history. She summarized the history of removing children from their homes and placement into boarding schools and late foster homes and the generational trauma that this history has caused. 

“Women are the foundations of our families and we really need a major cultural shift in how women are treated, how women are talked about and how women are looked at.” Said Woodward.  She explained that we should not wait for governments to change policies, that we had to make changed individually and within our own communities. 

Woodward explained that taking care kits to family members of the murdered and missing can show your support in an important way. “Doing something simple as these care kits is just one way of giving them the love, care and acknowledgement.” 

This series will continue for two additional weeks and go over each speech of the symposium in depth, we will continue with Dr Cerynn Desjarlais, a panel discussion and finalized with Rep. Ruth Buffalo.