By Latoya Lonelodge
(NORMAN, OK) When word got out there would be an event centered on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) on the campus of the University of Oklahoma (OU), it spread quickly. Taking place at the OU Memorial Union, students, community members, both Native and non-Native packed the seats to hear guest speakers including special guest speaker Abigail Echo-Hawk.
MMIW has gained the spotlight on a state and federal level after coming to light the rapid epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples across the U.S. Case after case of unsolved missing and murdered Indigenous peoples have surfaced demanding action and justice from victims’ family members, community members and tribal citizens.
Taking the podium, Dr. Jessica Blanchard, with the OU Center for Applied Social Research, introduced each speaker thanking them for their attendance in honoring the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered women and girls within Native communities.
OU student Adarius Begay, with OU’s only Native American fraternity Sigma Nu Alpha Gamma, approached the podium to share words on behalf of the university’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.
“Today 39 Tribal Nations grow in the state of Oklahoma as a result of center and colonial policies that were designated to eradicate and assimilate Native people,” Begay said.
Begay went on to say the University of Oklahoma acknowledges and honors the historical connection the university has with its Indigenous community and with the diverse and Indigenous peoples connected to this center.
“We fully recognize and support and advocate for the solemn rights of all Oklahoma’s 39 Tribal Nations and affirm who they are today, this acknowledgement is aligned with our university’s school value of creating a diverse and inclusive community that is an institutional responsibility to recognize and acknowledge the people, the culture and history that makes up our entire Native community,” he said.
Dr. Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, Office of Diversity and Inclusion vice president, said the mission of their office is to increase awareness, educate the campus community and advocate for the voices across the campus of OU.
“On behalf of the University of Oklahoma and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the division of diversity, equity and inclusion, we thank you for being here tonight at this event for murdered and missing Indigenous women. This is an important cause, it is an important cause because young people are being stolen from their homes and they’re going missing and showing up murdered, so we all have a responsibility because we are our neighbor’s keeper and it is our responsibility to create a community of care, not only on this campus but in the surrounding communities that surround this campus and so again thank you for being here this evening,” Hyppolite said.
Taking the stage, Junior Miss Indian Oklahoma Akiana Bates, dressed in her full regalia, addressed some of the issues with the MMIW epidemic and it’s impact in Native country.
“On behalf of myself and the Oklahoma Federation of Indian women, I would like to thank Abigail Echo-Hawk and Jessica Blanchard and every person who has continued to speak out on behalf of those who are near and dear to our sisterhood and are no longer with us. These women continue to fight for their voice, for their rights and respect. The MMIW have really helped spread the word on everything and it truly is impactful,” Bates said.
Focus shifted as guest speaker Abigail Echo-Hawk, Chief Research Officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board and the Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute became the center of attention in addressing violence against Indigenous peoples and women.
“It’s not easy to hear and I recognize it in our communities and I see so many lovely Native faces out there right now. You have likely been impacted by violence in your own family, in your own tribe, in your own communities,” Echo-Hawk began. “I appreciate the opportunity to be here and to share some of the work my organization and the individuals that I work with on the work that we’ve been doing on MMIW and girls across the country in the United States.”
Echo-Hawk said their work is now reaching in countries internationally, Australia and New Zealand and also with Indigenous peoples in Mexico.
Making her presence known, Echo-Hawk sang a song commemorating the lives affected by the MMIW epidemic, filling the silence of the room with harmony and empathy.
“Every single day in this country on this land that was once ours, that held the Indigenous people at its heart and reciprocal relationship and in a partnership, every day on this land, on the land in which the air that we breathe right now, 1,000 years ago our ancestors were here and they breathed the same air and science tells us that the air that we breath right now is the same air from 1,000 years ago, just recirculates but it comes back home, it always comes back home, so today this air that we breathe, the resiliency of those ancestors is with us right now and today,” Echo-Hawk said.
Asking the audience to breath in and out deeply, Echo-Hawk explained when breathing in, the strength and resiliency of ancestors are inhaled.
“That is what it’s going to take if we are truly going to understand, address and intervene … our matriarchs are dying, every single day a woman goes missing, a daughter is raped, a child is murdered, and they have one thing in common, they’re Indigenous. And this is happening to them more than it is happening to anybody else on this land and we knew that, we’ve always known that and in fact when we look at how did this start, we have to go back and think about something you’re probably not expecting me to say, but I’m going to be talking to you today about biology,” Echo-Hawk said.
Echo-Hawk paused and stated, “the biology of tears, starting back to when settlers first came onto Indigenous lands.”
“When the settlers first came into our lands we welcomed them, I was with some friends on the east coast and they were talking about how they welcomed those first settlers, how they clothed them, how they taught them how to survive off the land, how they taught them how to farm and then they talked about how they’ve burned their villages down, they raped their women, they killed their children and they worked to eradicate them off that land. This issue did not start 10 years ago, it did not start 20 years ago, our stories did not begin 50 years ago, it started more than 500 years ago when there was an invasion on this country that wanted our land and wanted our resources and one of the ways that they started to attack us was violence against our women and in this talk I don’t want you to think there isn’t violence against our other Indigenous folks because there is, but it is disproportionally our women who have been actively targeted,” Echo-Hawk said.
In her riveting speech and presentation discussing the raw facts surrounding MMIW, Echo-Hawk unapologetically stood firm in her stance in her fight to stop the MMIW epidemic. She said for years many have marched, many have gone to the federal government telling them our women are dying, are missing and to do something about it.
“Fulfill your treaty obligations, send law enforcement like you’re supposed to, but it didn’t happen. In fact, when you even look at what you know about violence against Indigenous women, we barely know anything,” Echo-Hawk said.
Echo-Hawk said she was impressed by the number of students and guests who were present, alongside local MMIW Oklahoma Chapters who were also in attendance.
“I came here to share the work that my organization has been doing to build and to create data on MMIW for a tool for the community to push for justice for their people. I was excited to see a room full of people, I wasn’t expecting it because it’s a Thursday night and so I was really honored that so many people came and the tears and the emotions that people have been sharing with me has been so encouraging and the women here in Oklahoma who are pushing and demanding for justice, I’m so impressed and inspired by them so I feel fortunate to come here to be inspired by the work that’s happening,” Echo-Hawk said.
Through her efforts, alongside others demanding justice for MMIW cases, Echo-Hawk said as Indigenous women and girls, “we have been effectively silenced.”
“We haven’t been present in the data, we have not had the interventions, and the police aren’t investigating our cases. It has really taken the grass root efforts to demand justice to say, ‘no longer,’ we will not let this happen and so the more events that happen and the more marches that happen, the more policies that are passed in state legislatures and on the federal level that is pushing for justice for our women, we need our voices to be present, we need them to be loud and we need it to be led by Native women,” Echo-Hawk said.
Part of that push Echo-Hawk said is to focus on changing policies throughout Indian Country.
“We really need to focus on changing policies, at both the state and federal level, we need to demand justice and ensure that we get the proper protection from law enforcement, we need to work within our own communities and combat the domestic violence too, we need to provide resources for our young ones and to be a part of their cultural activities because that’s what protects us, our ceremonies, our prayers, our cultural ways, we need to ensure those programs exist for our young ones so that they see a path forward for themselves,” Echo-Hawk said.
During the event Oklahoma artists MaryBeth Timothy, Christie Tiger and Gordon Emhoolah performed live paintings. Each painting was raffled off at the end with all proceeds being donated to the local MMIW chapters of Oklahoma.