'We Deserve To Feel Safe:' Unangax̂ Activists Speak Up About MMIWG2S
Indigenous women in the United States are murdered 10 times more often than the national average, and nearly half of all Alaska Native and Native American women have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to the Department of Justice.
Since 2017, May 5 has been recognized as National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-spirit people. The day is often referred to as MMIWG2S or MMIW.
Indigenous activists leading the movement are speaking up about the issue, saying this day of awareness is not enough, and it's time for action.
Taytum Robinson is one of the people working to shed light on the MMIWG2S movement. She uses her creative work as an artist to help advocate for those who have been murdered or gone missing. She said she believes that MMIWG2S is a transnational crisis.
"I wouldn't describe it as a pandemic or epidemic because, in my opinion, it's a crisis that is directly linked to genocide," Robinson said. "It's a very serious topic. And unfortunately, Indigenous peoples don't have the support from law enforcement that I feel they really deserve."
In 2018, a survey by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) reported almost 6,000 Alaska Native and Native American women and girls were missing from 71 urban cities. Of these missing women, less than 120 were registered in the Department of Justice database.
According to Robinson, missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people fall under the radar far too often.
"One time is too many to see a post saying 'this person is missing [in] Fairbanks, Anchorage, etc.; height, weight, details about what they were last wearing, who they were last with,'" Robinson said. "When you see that on a post on Instagram or Twitter, any social media, it's like that sinking feeling of , 'god, I really hope that they make it home. And I hope that the police take it seriously.'"
Social media has become a large platform for sharing information about MMIWG2S. Posts are shared to raise awareness, but have also become a form of searching for missing people. By creating a public post about a missing person, people are able to reshare the content, which helps spread information quickly. The ultimate goal is to help bring a missing person home or find a lead to their whereabouts, but that doesn’t always happen.
"It's a sobering realization, especially as an Indigenous person and knowing Indigenous people and having tight-knit communities and friends and family, that if myself or any one of them were to go missing, that there's a possibility that the report and support that we would need from law enforcement wouldn't be as big of an impact as you would regularly see for [a non-Indigenous person] who was missing or murdered," Robinson said.
According to Robinson, harmful stereotypes about Alaska Natives and Native Americans contribute to the lack of response from law enforcement.
"We deserve to feel safe," Robinson said. "We deserve to feel valid, regardless of our background, habits — whatever it might be — our story, our upbringing, that we deserve the same treatment. We really do because there is a drastic inequality that I feel like will only be addressed if we keep being loud about it."
While there may be more effective ways to take action in the future, Robinson said she believes that having a vocal and aware community is the most reliable way to bring home missing persons.
Robinson recently graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Biology from University of Hawaii Manoa and is the artist behind Qawax̂ Creations, a seal intestine jewelry line. She uses her social media platform to raise awareness about various social justice issues, including MMIWG2S.
As part of raising awareness, Shayla Shaishnikoff, climate resiliency coordinator for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska said attention must also be brought to those who might be causing these crimes. And according to Shaishnikoff, there is a direct connection between resource extraction and violence against Native women.
"MMIW is an epidemic that we have in our country, as well as in other countries, as a result of the presence of extractive industry, largely due to man camps and things like that," Shaishnikoff said. "And that's only one form of violence that we're seeing from extractive industries. There's a lot more that come with that, but missing and murdered Indigenous women is definitely a consequence."
Man camps, or work camps, are temporary housing communities set up for laborers hired by extractive industries. In the case of oil, pipelines often cut through or around reservations and other marginalized communities.
While migrating across Native land, the transient workers in these camps may also be committing violent crimes, Shaishnikoff said. And for reservations already underserved by law enforcement, responses to missing persons cases are low.
With little action being done to protect Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, Indigenous groups have been the stewards bringing this crisis to the light. According to Shaishnikoff, while it is important for Indigenous people to do that work, it's also unfortunate that those communities have to bear the weight of providing support.
"A lot of the people committing these crimes are slipping through jurisdictional cracks," Shaishnikoff said. "And so it's left to us to stand up and say something about it and make sure that these voices are heard because Indigenous women are oftentimes sexually assaulted and murdered at rates that are like 10 times higher than any other ethnicity."
According to Shaishnikoff, the responsibility is a community-wide effort.
"I think it's really important to keep spreading awareness and to hold each other accountable, not only for women to speak up and speak on this, but also for the men as well," she said.
Last year, the Qawalangin tribe had a fundraising event where they encouraged people to wear red and post it on social media using the hashtag #nomorestolensisters.
For every person that shared a picture, the tribe donated to MMIWG2S. This year, in partnership with other local organizations, the tribe hosted a socially distanced craft night to honor those lost and murdered and to spread awareness.
Shaishnikoff has helped plan MMIWG2S events at the tribe for the last two years and is a vocal activist in the cause. She is currently finishing her second Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, attending classes at Western Washington University remotely. Last summer, she also completed her first traditional iqyax̂, or Unangax̂ skin-on-frame sea kayak build. She hopes to continue living in the Aleutian region and being a passionate advocate for her people.
Haliehana Stepetin is an artist, scholar and activist from Akutan. As an Unangax̂ dancer and PhD candidate at University of California Davis, she uses her performance and knowledge as a form of activism for the MMIWG2S movement.
According to Stepetin, safety rests in the hands of community, and it's, in part, their responsibility to take action to protect women, girls and two-spirit people alike. But she said that responsibility requires more than just recognizing the problem.
"Awareness is just the first thing," Stepetin said. "And I don't even think awareness is what we need to be focusing on. We need to be focusing on the safety of missing and murdered Indigenous women —of living Indigenous women so that they don't become missing or murdered. And that's something that's always in my head —how do I protect my kin from becoming missing or murdered?"
For Stepetin, the question of how to help is a call to action.
"We have the responsibility now, to take care of our kin and our women, our sisters," Stepetin said. "It's our responsibility to ensure their safety. And so safety to me is community-based. It's community-created, and it's community-constituted. It doesn't rest outside of our communities. It's our own responsibility."
One of the ways that Stepetin creates space for dialogue is through dance.
In 2018, Stepetin performed with Indigenized Productions, an Indigenous production company based in Seattle, Washington. Stepetin's performance was dedicated to MMIWG2S, but also to all of the Unangax̂ that were forcibly relocated during World War II.
After the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Chain, many villagers from the region were forced to relocate to Southeast Alaska. Poor living conditions and a lack of medical care led to the death of one in 10 people, she said. Many were buried there and never made it home, similar to the Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people that are still missing today.
Stepetin's performance materializes the resilience of those Unangax̂ who never returned home.
"The performance is called Slaĝux̂ Chiĝanax̂ Alakax̂, which means, 'the wind is not a river,'" Stepetin said. "And this was a common phrase that they said in the World War II internment, as a way to remind us that nothing is permanent, like the wind."
Some of the inspiration for her performance was influenced by traditional hunting stories told by her late father, Thomas Stepetin.
"My dad said we would use the soot of the fire and put it on ourselves to cleanse and before hunting to hide your scent," Stepetin said. "And I was like, 'I need a fire. And I need like black paint. I'm going to paint myself, smudge myself, as a performance.' But I was also like, 'I think I need red paint because I want to bring in the MMIWG movement and bring attention to the fact that a lot of our people never came home after that.'"
Stepetin said WWII was a significant marker in history that changed the way culture was embraced by Unangax̂ people.
"It affected our dance, the transmission of our dance, and our language and our spirituality," she said. "It affected a lot of these things —it interrupted them. I'm not going to say that we lost anything because I don't like the rhetoric of loss. I don't like saying that and allowing outside influences to have that sort of impact on us. We're stronger than that."
She said those outside influences shouldn’t determine what Indigenous communities get to lose and keep.
"So I don't ever say that we lost anything," Stepetin said. "It went to sleep. And it went to sleep for good reason, we were mourning."
According to Stepetin, that lack of permanence means that cultural practices can be reawakened. For example, when she received traditional tattoo markings from Unangax̂ artist Dustin Newman, that was a chance to recover a sleeping tradition. And with each transmission of ink, stories old and new were being weaved.
"We reawoke a tradition of, [about] 150 years that was [practiced] before the WWII internment," Stepetin said. "Because in Russian Orthodoxy, we're not allowed to tattoo. So it had been stopped for a long time, but these things are reawakening now."
Making jewelry, building traditional iqyan and dance are just some of the ways Unangax̂ are leading the revitalizing movement in the region. Robinson said, with a growing sense of community among Indigenous people, voices are growing louder —and these voices want protection.
As it is said in Unangam tunuu, tumaniin ayagan agliisax̂tan —protect our women.