A participant in the Greater than Fear Rally & March in Rochester Minnesota. Credit: Lorie Shaull |Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Wisconsin, like much of North America, is only beginning to grapple with the silent crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. Later this year, the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s (MMIW) Task Force is expected to release a report drawing from work conducted since late 2020. Historically, tackling the MMIW crisis has been hampered by legislative neglect and a lack of resources aimed at fully assessing and addressing the issue afflicting indigenous and low income communities across the country.
Wisconsin’s task force, part of a growing nationwide effort, was modeled after a similar task force in Minnesota. Initially, advocates and activists pushing for something to be done in Wisconsin sought a remedy through the Legislature. Once it became clear that legislative proposals would only languish, Wisconsin’s DOJ stepped in to host the task force.
One of the biggest enduring hurdles is data collection, which can be complicated by a variety of factors. In Wisconsin, information about the number of murdered indigenous women is limited, and even more scarce for missing women. Building a robust data system and improving reporting methods has been a top priority since the task force was first announced. At the time, Shannon Holsey, president of both the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and the Greater Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, stressed a key component of the issue. “Addressing the MMIW crisis requires acknowledging that the crisis exists, understanding the deep and intricate roots underlying the crisis, providing justice to the missing and murdered and to protecting Native women and girls.”
In 2020, according to a recent House Oversight Committee hearing, 40% of all women and girls reported missing were people of color. That’s 100,000 out of 250,000 missing human beings, despite women of color making up just 16% of the U.S. population. The committee also noted the lack of reliable data on the issue, and disparities in media coverage involving missing women of color. Some parts of the country are trying innovative approaches to help turn the tide. Washington State is poised to introduce the nation’s first ever alert system to identify and locate missing indigenous women. In late 2021 President Joe Biden issued executive orders to address the MMIW crisis. Shades of the pain and neglect associated with the crisis rang true on Feb. 25 when Wisconsin’s MMIW task force held a family impact subcommittee meeting.
For the families involved, discussing their experiences publicly can be difficult. Nevertheless, some individuals shared some of those experiences during the online meeting. Colleen Dodge, who lives on the Menominee reservation, recalled meeting her husband in college. A few years later, his sister was murdered in Oklahoma. “We had to go through having family fly down there and be at the hospital, and there was no kind of support or anything,” said Dodge. Other families whose loved ones remain missing, are burdened with the absence of closure. “My grandmother was murdered by my grandfather,” said Denise Johnson, a woman of St. Croix Chippewa and the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa descent. Johnson, who was unable to speak on the online meeting due to technical issues, typed her story out in the chat. “I and my family live with the generational fallout/effects of that violence. I have a cousin that has been missing for many years now and we pray she is alive. “
Malia Chow, a Hawaiian-indigenous women and community healer and advocate at HIR Wellness, emphasized how the objectification of indigenous women feeds the cycle. “When you’re in spaces and places where your culture is not understood,” said Chow, “it becomes very easy to become exploited and objectified.” Chow grew up in Menomonee Falls, along with her family and twin sister Maile. “And so, when we grew up in a very white community, which quite honestly was blatantly racist when I was growing up — and we were one of the darkest skinned people there — I come to realize that when people started to listen to us, or value us, it was because of our ‘culture,’ or exoticism.”
“It brought my sister and, I think, myself into an unhealthy dynamic,” she added.
Going into their late teens and early 20’s, Chow found her sister hanging around people who were considered “social rejects,” largely because “we were rejected for being brown. We were rejected for not being enough.” Being relegated to the fringes eventually exposed Maile to drug culture. Trips to Los Vegas with her friends also introduced Maile to the insidious practice of grooming vulnerable young people for human trafficking, even by other women. Chow’s sister was attracted by the promise of a glamorous life where she would be respected, and find pay she’d never earn through the menial wages available at home. “It was a process of breaking her,” Chow recalled, ‘and then eventually of getting to the point where I could understand that she had been so brainwashed. That was what she was told, that was what she was taught.”
Some time later, Chow moved back to Honolulu. While still in the airport, Chow recalls pointing out a nearby hospital where she and Maile were born. “That’s the hospital where me and my twin sister were born,” Chow told a friend who was traveling with her. “And right at that moment my mom called .. I answered the phone and she said, ‘Maile’s dead.’” It was just a couple weeks after Mother’s Day, and the twins had recently turned 24 years old. “I remember the last time I spoke to my sister, it was a three-way call with me, her, and my mom on Mother’s Day, right around our birthday.” Maile was berating her mother but Chow says she knew that wasn’t who her sister really was. “She was speaking like her pimp,” Chow said during the task force meeting. “She sounded like her pimp, on Mother’s Day.” Choking back tears, Chow continued, “and that was the last time my mom and I spoke to her.”
Maile’s family learned that her naked body had been found by hikers, three months after she was thrown off a highway overpass. She had been beaten and raped before being driven to the overpass in the trunk of her own car. Chow believes that multiple pimps were involved in that malevolent act. Maile, like her twin sister, was just 24 years old. “She was taken to a mortuary, and she was pronounced as ‘Jane Doe,’” said Chow, “and my father had to go and identify her by himself. Three months she sat out there. And then they buried her under a mass grave. Well to me, it’s mass. She’s buried underneath, like, two other people with no, nothing. It’s just, there’s a piece of plexiglass with a printed piece of paper that was printed by some office with her, and a bunch of other people’s names. And she’s still there.”
When Chow’s family was first faced with the tragedy, resources of any kind were hard to come by. “All we kept hearing is ‘money,’’’ said Chow. “It’s going to cost to exhume her remains. We couldn’t talk to anyone.” The stigma the family felt added a new dimension to their suffering, “So we couldn’t even talk about it.” To raise money, Chow’s family held cultural performances, a further blow to their dignity. Chow recalled that media interest in Maile’s murder was insensitive and exploitative. “Because that would be ‘hot news’ that a suburban brown family of Menomonee Falls had a trafficked daughter,” Chow recalled with disgust. Chow’s mother pushed back against that framing. The resulting coverage, to the family, felt like a personal attack on a grieving mother.
For years, Chow tried to avoid both the pain and other people. “It’s amazing how many people came out of the woodwork who suddenly cared,” said Chow with a voice tinged with anger, now giving way again to tears. “It was like they didn’t care. It wasn’t about ‘care.’ It was just about getting the dirt on my family. So I held it in for a long time. And I moved back to Honolulu again just to run away, and pretend like it didn’t exist.” Chow “buried that and swallowed that for years,” even building an entirely new friend network just to avoid the topic. “And I started getting really horrible physical side effects,” she admitted, “because I just pretended it did not exist. I literally just started new.”
It would take 12 years for Chow to muster the will to visit her sister’s grave. “I could not face the fact that she was gone for 12 years,” said Chow. HIR Wellness also created the Maile’s Achievement Nourishing Ambition (MANA) Award, named in honor of Chow’s sister and granted to the survivors of trafficking, and their families. The same painful legacy is playing out across the state and country, at a scale that has yet to be fully determined. For Chow, understanding the contours of grief is important, and connecting it to what has happened to indigenous people historically. These are hard but vital lessons.
As much as the task force’s work involves data collection and policy planning, it is also part of the mission to bring these stories out in a supportive and understanding space. Besides facing racism growing up, Chow also feels that lack of community has perpetuated the cycle. “We didn’t know the historical trauma that this is attached to,” said Chow. “It’s like playing out in real time, right now.” She shared her story so that others may know they’re not alone. Through her own work as an advocate, Chow gradually found healing. “I want you to know that you can cry, and you can let it out,” said Chow, “and you don’t have to swallow it. You don’t have to become more ill from it, and you can help other people.”
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