Sacajawea and Pocahontas were sex-trafficking victims.
Let that really sink in, as it did for me when Jodi Voice Yellowfish explained how the ongoing legacies of sexual exploitation, violence and other atrocities against Indigenous women and peoples are casually tucked into America’s glorified origin stories.
I spoke with Voice — who is Muscogee Creek, Oglala Lakota, and Cherokee and chair of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women-TX Rematriate based in Dallas — ahead of a MMIW dialogue hosted by the Houston-based Center for the Healing of Racism held on March 28. Her churn of countless stories of Indigenous women who were kidnapped, assaulted and/or killed builds into a whirlpool of frustration with a system that is not only broken, but overlooks the unique complexities and challenges of this human rights crisis wrought upon Native families and victims.
MMIW-TX is part of a larger movement that really gained traction among Canada’s First Nations and made its way into Native communities in the U.S., as more and more Indigenous groups became more vocal about the fact that their women were disappearing at astonishing rates — and that statistics and data on these disappearances were not being tracked and expose gaping disparities.
“Native people started activating themselves and started to say, ‘Hey, there’s a discrepancy. Our women are being forgotten. Justice is not being served,'” Voice says.
Voice recalls the case “she couldn’t shake” that finally nudged her into activism — that of Savanna Greywind, a 22-year-old member of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota who was brutally murdered and dumped in a river in 2017 when she was 8 months pregnant; her baby also had been cut out of her. Greywind’s death led Congress to pass the Savanna Act in 2020, which requires both reservation and non-reservation law enforcement bodies to strengthen training protocols and coordination to address cases of missing and murdered Native women.
Communities of color in particular are acutely aware of the seeming oversight and lack of impetus when their women and children go missing; for Indigenous communities, the disparity is truly disturbing and extraordinarily personal.
Last year, I interviewed Nikki Barbre McDonald, the director of the American Indian Center that opened in Houston just before pandemic shutdowns struck. Though the interview centered on how the nascent center was faring, its importance to the Indigenous communities in the region and her dreams of its legacy and endurance, her thoughts often trailed to the plight of human trafficking, particularly egregious in Houston, that too often snares Native women, girls, boys and two-spirit people.
“I’m so very passionate about raising awareness about human trafficking here,” the director said then, adding apologies for her distractions. “It’s always so heavy on my spirit, as a Native woman. No one seems to care; and it’s right in our backyard. It’s neighbors, friends, children, our collective people.
“You know, it makes me angry. It hurts.”
That’s a familiar grievance for Voice, who launched MMWI-TX Rematriate in 2018 after a case fell in her lap; because of her work in the community and her sister’s history of work among domestic violence survivors, they were asked to help find someone’s family member who had disappeared. As part of the search, Voice held a vigil and a community call-out to name Native loved ones who were missing and/or murdered; the number of names evoked and people grieved was astonishing — and went back generations.
“(The names) just kept coming; it felt endless,” Voice says. “Some people were finding out stories that had been kept secret for generations. Name after name — all a part of this cycle of subjugation, abuse and violence on Native bodies.
“(MMIW) had always been a problem, we just didn’t have a name for it,” she adds.
MMIW-Tx Rematriate’s mission is manyfold; the organization is run by a handful of people who serve as a resource to help distressed families navigate the law enforcement system and the “exhausting” work of educating officers about not only the crisis in the moment but the layered, ongoing legacies of colonial and gender-based violence that foster an epidemic in which Native women are, Voice asserts, “not vulnerable, but targeted.”
They educate about how Amber Alerts work, help print out flyers, craft social media posts and communicate with media outlets. The organization also serves as a liaison between states’ police forces and federal agents and “a community that has had no reason to trust either,” while helping tribal law enforcement when the sticky issue of jurisdiction extends beyond their land and thin resources.
Voice recounts successes and tragedies, cases when prayers were answered and others when it was just too late. But most important, Voice says, is her work to empower her community and create a safe space for advocacy and anger — and for hope and healing.
“It’s not just about solving a crisis; it’s the blood memory that spans time, this wound of erasure and disposability. We exist; we are here and we are human. We can’t keep accepting violence.”
Written ByJaundrea ClayReach Jaundrea on
Jaundréa Clay is a native of West Texas (great for star-gazing) who has lived in Dallas (go SMU!), Waco and San Antonio and is a newcomer to Houston — but is never content in her corner of the earth. For her, traveling is a philosphy, not just a vacation filling the space between ho-hum and humdrum. A new experience can be found in the backyard, backwoods, or “over there.” She’s traveled extensively, both in the States and abroad, with many more places on the bucket list, and enjoys getaways not so much to see new things, but to plug into regional and world views to learn her hosts’ cultural “-isms.” Her experiences may also lend themselves to commentary on current events, arts, music, language, sociology, socioeconomic factors and eccentricities that make each little corner of the earth unique in its own right.