Wisconsin rally for missing and murdered indigenous women

By: - May 6, 2023 6:00 pm
Rachel Fernandez (left( and Carrie Scott Haney (center) at a rally for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Friday at the Capitol. A friend displayed a picture of Haney's daughter, Audrey "Tu-Tu" Scott, who was murdered.

Rachel Fernandez (left( and Carrie Scott Haney (center) at a rally for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Friday at the Capitol. A friend displayed a picture of Haney’s daughter, Audrey “Tu-Tu” Scott, who was murdered. | Examiner photo

About 150 people wearing red and black, most of them women, gathered in front of the Capitol on a sunny afternoon Friday, May 5, to mark the second annual Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Day of Awareness.

Red dresses flapped in the breeze from hangers suspended from the white, marble pillars, next to signs stamped with a bloody handprint and the words: “No more stolen lives” 

“My niece went missing for several weeks, until one day we got a call that her body was found by the railroad tracks,” said Becky Burnett, her voice breaking. She was one of several women who stepped up to the microphone on the Capitol steps to give testimony about personal experiences with the epidemic of abuse and violence directed at Native American women and girls. “She left behind two small boys,” Burnett said of her niece. No one was ever charged in the now 30-year-old murder case, she added. “It can be years and it still hurts.”

Participants in the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Day of Awareness made a human chain around the Wisconsin State Capitol on Friday, May 5 2023. | Examiner photo
Participants in the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Day of Awareness made a human chain around the Wisconsin State Capitol on Friday, May 5 2023. | Examiner photo

A group of teenagers drummed and chanted and little girls in pigtails held hands with older female relatives, making a human chain to “wrap the Capitol in red,” as Rachel Fernandez, the Menominee tribal legislator who emceed the event, put it.

Fernandez is co-chair of the data subcommittee for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Justice and Wisconsin tribal communities charged with helping to fight the abduction, homicide, violence and trafficking of Native American women in Wisconsin. Accurate data has been hard to collect and a report by the task force has been delayed. Jurisdictional complications, communication and coordination problems between agencies and misidentification of Native American victims, most of whom live off tribal lands, are among the reasons for a nationwide data deficit on missing and murdered women. 

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee recently voted down a $7.4 million budget proposal by Gov. Tony Evers to fund the creation of a state office dedicated to addressing violence against Native American people in Wisconsin.

“Too often we have not paid attention to the violence against women in the state of Wisconsin, particularly indigenous women,” Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez said, addressing the crowd at the Capitol Friday, calling the issue “a public health crisis.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that homicide is the third leading cause of death for Native American girls and teens nationwide. And Native American women are more than three times as likely to be murdered as white women. 

Indigenous researchers in Wisconsin have identified 22 cases of missing and murdered indigenous people since 1980, according to Native American issues reporter Frank Vaisvilas of the Green Bay Press Gazette. Half of those cases occurred in the last 10 years, he reports, and only two of the victims were men.

At the rally on Friday, Carrie Scott Haney, whose daughter Audrey “Tu-Tu” Scott was murdered by her boyfriend, asked for help pushing the Wisconsin Legislature to create a “purple alert” system to track victims of domestic violence. She handed out purple wristbands with her daughter’s name and asked people to sign a Change.org petition

“People are scared about violence in their communities and afraid to speak out — that they would face harm in their daily life,” said Kah^ta Cornelius, who came to the Capitol with about 35 other Oneida people, carrying silhouettes with the names of missing and murdered girls and women. 

“We started making these silhouettes,” Cornelius said. “It’s real powerful to carry that spirit of a girl on a stick.”

Cornelius said she had heard from members of affiliated tribes in North Dakota about women and girls being abducted by oil workers who came to live in the massive “man camps” near reservation land. “Along with them come all the drugs, alcohol, crime … They come on the reservation, get these girls addicted. It’s just horrific. The neglect of children, sexual violence, drug abuse. We’ve got to do something to raise awareness.”

After inviting other women to share their stories, Fernandez described her own victimization which, she said, it took her years to discuss. “I was taken across state lines. I was drugged up. Things were done to me,” she said. She ended up in North Carolina, she said, where “I felt like I was playing a game to survive.”

“After going through some awful stuff, trauma, I made my way back to Wisconsin,” Fernandez said. “It wasn’t until several years later that I felt worthy of healing, worthy of love and forgiveness … and that started my journey into advocacy.”

“Shame and blame” plague survivors, Fernandez said. “My saving grace in my healing has been being surrounded by my grannies, my aunts and my sisters.”

“What has been happening to us since colonization,” she added, “it has to stop.”

Samantha Skenandore, a Madison attorney, told the crowd about representing a domestic violence victim in a case against the man who was stalking her when she was a first-year law student. The stalker called Skenandore on her cell phone and threatened her, but she won in court and still stays in touch with her former client. She has taken more than 75 domestic violence cases since then, she said. “If we don’t take those cases on, they turn into a red dress.” 


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.