Highway of Tears & Fears As Massive Missing & Murdered Mounting
Violence Against Indigenous Women:
A LEGACY OF COLONIALISM & APARTHEID
“Sexual abuse of First Nation’s children is at crisis proportions. This form of violence is a legacy of colonialism.” (Jackie Lynn, Colonialism & the Sexual Exploitation of Canada’s First Nations Women)
“Discrimination & violence against Indigenous women is Canada’s untold human rights issue.” (Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada)
Like European society itself, scratch the surface of violence and abuse against Indigenous women & children, and you will quickly find a dark world of corruption, exploitation, perversion & depravity. One that exists at a broad social level as well as in the family household. Sexual violence & abuse against Indigenous women & children has reached proportions that some describe as epidemic. The vast majority of this occurs in the family home, with most of it never being reported. This problem is especially prevalent in Indigenous communities due to the legacy of colonialism.
Sexual abuse of women & children is also part of a multi-billion dollar global industry, involving organized crime groups, prostitution, sex tourism, pedophile rings, massage parlors, escort services, pornography, human trafficking & slavery, etc. Due to impoverishment, family & community dysfunction, trauma, & subsequent drug addiction, many Indigenous women & children are vulnerable to sexual exploitation through prostitution.
Yet, whatever form this violence & abuse takes, the most terrible acts occur behind closed doors, out of sight & out of mind. It’s easy to ignore, or rationalize that it doesn’t “appear” very widespread. When it is talked about, people don’t want to hear about it. Many don’t even want to think about it. As disturbing as this phenomenon is, we must confront it.
There is no doubt that violence & abuse against Indigenous women & children is a primary factor in the crisis of social dysfunction gripping our communities, both urban & rural, including alcohol & drugs, suicide, gangs, prostitution, imprisonment, mental & physical health problems, etc. This dysfunction has a negative impact on our resistance movement & seriously undermines our ability to organize & fight. If our struggle is ever to advance, it must come to terms with violence & abuse against women & children at the family & community level.
HIGHWAY OF TEARS
Since the 1980s, some 32 women, mostly Aboriginal, have disappeared along Highway 16 between Prince Rupert & Prince George, in northern BC. Officially, 9 of these, aged 14-25, are under investigation. All but one were Aboriginal.
In 2005, a Take Back the Highway march was held to draw attention to the issue. In 2006, the killings & disappearances along Hwy. 16–dubbed the ‘Highway of Tears’ –received national & international media attention following the most recent case, that of 14-year old Aielah Saric-Auger. The young Native women went missing on February 2, 2006, and her body was found 10 days later. Community members began to organize. A walk was held along the highway, and calls for action began to sound. This prompted the government, along with RCMP, local municipalities, and band councils, to organize a public symposium in Prince George in March 2006.
Highway 16 is a stretch of highway 724 kilometers in length running between Prince Rupert on the coast, & Prince George in the central interior. There are about a dozen Native communities/reservations along it, including those of the Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Cheslatta, Gitxsan, Wetsuwet’en, Carrier-Sekani, and others.
In June 2006, a report was released based on recommendations made at the public symposium held in March. It cited poverty & a lack of social activities in isolated reserves as the “root causes” of the disappearances & murders. It noted that many of the reserves have no essential business or recreation centers, and are several kilometers from nearby town centers. Combined with poverty & lack of transportation, many young women end up hitchhiking.
The report saw these factors as making young Native women particularly vulnerable to sexual predators, and recommended shuttle buses between communities, a network of safe-houses along the highway for women to stay at, a series of emergency phone booths, increased police patrols, and a 1-800 phone line to report hitchhikers, be implemented. Government officials promised tens of thousands of dollars, and the RCMP assigned more investigators.
VANCOUVER’S DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE
There is little doubt that the response from government officials & police to the Highway of Tears was due to the ongoing criticism of police for their handling of the missing & murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Since the early 1990s, some 68 women, many Aboriginal, have disappeared and/or been found murdered.
Beginning in 1991, Native women’s groups in Vancouver began holding an annual Women’s Memorial March every February 14 (Valentine’s Day) to remember the missing and/or dead women. The march passes through the Downtown Eastside, stopping at locations where women’s bodies have been found, or where they had last been seen. Songs & ceremonies are carried out. In addition, the march always stops outside the Vancouver Police Department building located at Main & Hastings (in the heart of the DTES).
Over the years, as more women were added to the list of missing, public criticism of the VPD increased. They were criticized for their apparent lack of effort in seriously investigating the disappearances & murders, with critics charging this was due to racism & the social class of the victims (many were Aboriginal, and many are alleged to have been drug addicts & prostitutes).
In September 2001, the RCMP were called in to assist the VPD, and a joint task force was established. America’s Most Wanted, a popular US television show, did a feature article on the missing women. Public pressure was increasing for the police to at least be seen as doing something towards solving the disappearances. Eventually, in February 2002, Robert Pickton was arrested & charged with over two dozen counts of murder, based largely on DNA evidence found at his Port Coquitlam pig farm (Coquitlam being a rural suburb of Vancouver).
Following Pickton’s 2002 arrest, more revelations of Vancouver police & RCMP incompetence came to light. Despite assertions that a serial killer was involved, police & city officials had vehemently denied this. In 1998, Kim Rosso, a geographic profiler in the Vancouver Police –a highly respected & award-winning investigator– stated that there was a strong possibility that a serial killer was involved. He was then excluded from the case & much of his work undermined.
In 1999, the mayor even suggested offering a $5,000 reward for any of the women on the list of disappeared who stepped forward, implying that they weren’t really ‘missing’ (later offering a $100,000 reward for tips). In a 2004 report on violence against urban Indigenous women, Amnesty International found that in Vancouver, “Police & city officials had long denied that there was any pattern to the disappearances or that women were in any particular danger.”
Pickton himself had been charged with attempted murder in 1997 after he repeatedly stabbed a woman working as a prostitute. The charges included unlawful confinement & assault with a weapon, but were later stayed when the victim would not testify against him. Then, in July 1998, police received a tip regarding a woman who had been at Pickton’s property and saw bags of bloody clothing as well as ID from various women.
Another tip came from Bill Hiscox, an employee of Pickton’s at the time (“Informant in Pickton case fails in bid to claim reward,” The Province, June 26, 2003). At this time Pickton was considered a ‘person of interest’ in the case and was even placed under surveillance for a brief period (“Pickton farm searched 3 times in 1997,” The Vancouver Sun, Feb. 28, 2002). Along with these incidents, tips from community members about parties with prostitutes, assaults & even killings occurring at Pickton’s farm –known as ‘Piggy’s Palace’– were provided to police. Despite all this, it would still take several years for Pickton to be arrested.
In August 2006, prosecutors reduced the number of charges to just 6 because the amount of evidence that would have to be used would be an “unreasonable burden” for a jury. Police say the 20 other counts are still ‘active’ and may be tried separately. Pickton’s trial is set to begin in January 2007. Despite Pickton’s arrest, and his alleged association to 31 victims whose DNA were found at his pig farm, there still remain over 37 unsolved disappearances from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
VIOLENCE AGAINST ABORIGINAL WOMEN
In 1996, a report by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada found that Aboriginal women between the ages of 25 & 44 were 4 times as likely to meet a violent death, compared to non-Native women. A 1989 study by the Ontario Native Women’s Association found that while 1 out of 10 women in Canada experienced some form of abuse, for Aboriginal women it was 8 out of 10 (Speaking of Abuse, BC Legal Services Society, January 2004).
Across Canada since the 1990s, there are an estimated 500 missing or murdered Aboriginal women. Some claim the real number may be in the thousands. In Edmonton, the bodies of some 20 women, most involved in the sex trade, have been found since the 1990s. There are a reported 40 unsolved murders & 39 long term disappearances in Alberta overall.
In 2003, the RCMP established Project KARE to investigate these cases, and have stated that at least 8 of the deaths may be the result of a serial killer. A large number of these women were Aboriginal. The situation is similar in Regina, Saskatoon, & Winnipeg, cities with large Native populations that are impoverished & heavily impacted by anti-social criminal activity, including gangs, drugs, and the sex-trade.
This phenomenon of violence against Indigenous women, along with police & government incompetence, is part of a broad, systemic pattern with deep historical roots. Although seemingly concentrated in urban areas, it frequently occurs in rural communities as well, and is often not reported. In the modern era, the case of Helen Betty Osborne is often used as an example of this.
In 1971, Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year old Native woman, was abducted, raped & brutally killed by 4 white men in The Pas, Manitoba (population at the time: 6,000). Many residents knew what had happened and who was responsible, but maintained a conspiracy of silence (the name of a book & TV show about the case).
Despite strong evidence, police did not seriously investigate the case until 1987, when one man, Dwayne Archie Johnston, was convicted & sentenced to life in prison. Another man was acquitted, one was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony, and one was never charged. In studies of this case, it was found that racism & abuse against Natives in The Pas were part of a general pattern, including the sexual harassment of young Indigenous women.
The four men had been cruising the streets purposely looking for a young Native women to have sex with. It is reported that when Osborne, who was not a prostitute, refused, she was abducted, raped and brutally beaten, her face being smashed in.
Three decades later, Felicia Solomon, 16, a cousin of Helen Osborne, disappeared in March 2003. Her body parts were found & identified three months later. Although the case of Helen Osborne is well known, it is but one small part of an overall pattern of oppression & exploitation that Indigenous women experience in reserves & urban ghettos across the country. It is sometimes referred to as racialized & sexualized violence (in particular, white supremacist & patriarchal violence, also directed against African & Asian women).
The murder of Felicia Solomon reveals not only these aspects of violence & hate against Indigenous women, but also its continuity over several decades. If we go further back in time, we find that sexualized violence against Indigenous women & children has been a constant factor of colonization. On the prairies, it can be traced back to the so-called ‘Indian Wars’ of the 1800s, when massacres, rapes, & sexual mutilation were common aspects of European military campaigns against plains Indigenous nations.
The same is true in Central & South America, from the time of the Spanish conquistadors to more recent massacres, torture & rapes carried out by state police, military, & paramilitary forces. In these regions there are also thousands of disappeared Indigenous women, with hundreds of corpses having been found, many with signs of torture & mutilation (i.e., Juarez, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, etc.).
A SYSTEMIC SOCIAL PROBLEM
In 2004, Amnesty International released a report entitled Stolen Sisters, documenting violence against Aboriginal women in urban areas of Western Canada. It cited several factors in the high rates of violence against urban Native females, including the legacy of Residential School abuses, fostering out of Native children, racism & sexism, as well as economic marginalization. The result was that many urban Native women were impoverished, homeless, and forced into the sex trade. Many had experienced a loss of culture & identity, dysfunctional families & communities, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All these factors contributed to making young Native women especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation & violence.
Another study reached similar conclusions:
“We interviewed 100 women prostituting in Vancouver, Canada. We found an extremely high prevalence of lifetime violence & post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fifty-two percent of our interviewees were women from Canada’s First Nations, a significant over-representation in prostitution compared with their representation in Vancouver generally (1.7 — 7%).
Eighty-two percent reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, by an average of four perpetrators. Seventy-two percent reported childhood physical abuse, 90% had been physically assaulted in prostitution, 78% had been raped in prostitution. Seventy-two percent met… criteria for PTSD. Ninety-five percent said that they wanted to leave prostitution. Eighty-six percent reported current or past homelessness with housing as one of their most urgent needs. Eighty-six percent expressed a need for treatment for drug or alcohol addictions.” (Abstract from Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence & the Colonization of First Nations Women)
The 2004 Amnesty International report also found that police officers had responded with indifference when informed by Natives of missing family members. There was also a failure to report missing persons due to lack of trust in the police, an observation common in many analyses of sexual assault (and seen as a major contributing factor in the massive underreporting of sex abuse). This mistrust is based on fears the complainant will be criminalized by police, that police will fail to provide protection if a report is made, and/or that the justice system itself will fail to prosecute, convict, and/or punish the offender.
Amnesty recommended that more research be done, that police receive culture-sensitive training, that more Native police be hired, and that the government ensure adequate social & health services for Aboriginals, and especially Native women. Also in 2004, the Native Women’s Association of Canada began its Sisters in Spirit Campaign to “raise awareness of alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada.” The group subsequently received $5-million from the federal government to carry out this work.
Overall, the main recommendations for dealing with this phenomenon have been to increase government funding for services & programs for Native women (including shelters & crisis lines), to increase policing, and to raise public awareness. None of these deal with the fundamental causes of violence against Indigenous women, however. The problem is systemic & social, deeply rooted in European history & culture (see “Roots of Patriarchal Violence” article). It is also deeply rooted within our own communities. To better understand how institutionalized the problem is, consider the following cases:
• In 2005, former RCMP officer Gary Stevens plead guilty to sexual assault of an underage girl. The allegations were first made in April 2004 while Stevens was a member of the RCMP’s Kitimat, BC, detachment.
• In 2005, two RCMP officers were suspended during an investigation into allegations they were buying sex from young prostitutes in Prince George, BC. Lee Lakeman, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centers (CASAC) stated that this was “just the tip of the iceberg,” referring also to the case of judge David Ramsey (“2 Mounties suspended in ‘misconduct’ probe,” by Jered Stuffco, The Province, May 22, 2005).
• In May 2004, David William Ramsey, a BC Provincial Court judge in Prince George, pleaded guilty to buying sex from and assaulting 4 Indigenous girls & youth aged 12, 14, 15, & 16, who had also appeared before him in court. These attacks had occurred between 1992 & 2001. As part of a plea bargain, Ramsey was sentenced to just 7 years and became eligible for parole in 2006. Despite the first complaint being made in 1999, when the RCMP began an investigation, Ramsey was not removed from his official position until 2002.
• On February 17, 2000, two sisters, Doreen LeClair & Corrine McKeowen, both Aboriginal, repeatedly called Winnipeg’s 911 emergency number to request police protection from an estranged boyfriend. Although they called 5 times throughout the day, both were killed.
• In a 1996 trial for two white men charged with beating to death Pamela Jean George, a Salteaux mother of two from Sakimay First Nation, the trial judge instructed the jury to keep in mind that George was “indeed a prostitute.” The men were convicted of manslaughter & sentenced to 6 1/2 years. They were paroled in 2000.
• John Martin Crawford was sentenced to ten years for brutally killing 35-year old Mary Jane Serloin in Lethbridge, Alberta. After just 5 years, he was released in 1989 and subsequently killed three more Native women.
• Gilbert Paul Jordan, known as the ‘boozing barber’, was in the company of at least 10 women –most Native– whose deaths were related to alcohol poisoning. In 1988 Jordan was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Vanessa Lee Buckner, 27, who was found naked in a Vancouver hotel room with a blood alcohol level 11 times the legal limit for driving. Jordan has also been convicted of rape, indecent assault, abduction, hit & run, drunk driving, and car theft.
In June 2000, Jordan was charged with sexual assault, negligence causing bodily harm & administering a noxious substance –alcohol– while drinking with a woman in a Victoria hotel. All charges were dropped in October of that year due to lack of evidence. Then, in November, police found Jordan trying to drink with a women in another Victoria hotel, a breach of his court-imposed conditions. In May 2001, he was sentenced to 15 months in jail and was out in 2002 on probation.
• In 1992, charges of sexual assault were stayed against Prince George Catholic Church bishop Hubert O’Connor. He had been accused by former students at the St. Joseph’s Residential School near Williams Lake of molesting them in the 1960s. The charges were dropped after Crown prosecutors failed to fully disclose all evidence to the defense. Complainants also stated that the Crown had failed to notify them or witnesses about important developments in the case and were generally negligent in prosecuting the case. O’Connor was the highest ranking official in the Catholic church to ever by charged with sex crimes.
These cases, along with those in Vancouver, illustrate a number of important points. They show the targeted abuse & exploitation of primarily Indigenous women, as well as the extent to which this abuse permeates all levels of colonial society (from downtown losers to cops, judges & priests). Not only are government officials & police incompetent in their investigation & punishment of these anti-social crimes, there is a clear pattern of their involvement as perpetrators.
The cases of judge David Ramsey, bishop O’Connor and the RCMP officers in Kitimat & Prince George area are especially disturbing considering the murders & disappearances along Highway 16. The very authorities that the people turn to for protection are morally corrupted and directly involved in the sexual exploitation of young Indigenous women & children. Lakeman’s comment that this is just the “tip of the iceberg” indicates that the problem is far greater than has been reported by the corporate media.
CHIEF JUSTICES & CORRUPT CHIEFS: PARTNERS IN CRIME??
In 1999, one independent BC interior newspaper, The Radical, did report on allegations of an organized sex trade in the Prince George area involving judges, doctors, lawyers, police, and even band councils. The paper was forced to close down after one of the accused –Ed John, a long-time chief of the Tl-azt-en band (near Prince George) and head of the First Nations Summit –launched a lawsuit. Ironically, Ed John was named minister of Child & Family Services in November 2000, just as the allegations against him were becoming more public.
For those involved in exposing Ed John & others, his appointment as an un-elected minister “brought to light the extent of official protection for pedophiles in public office, and the systemic nature of this crime” (see Appendix VI: Evidence of crimes against aboriginal children, including pedophilia, Hidden from History).
These allegations have been echoed by others over the years, including Squamish elder Harriet Nahanee, who has stated that she saw young Native girls being removed from the reserve to serve as prostitutes for wealthy businessmen connected to the Vancouver Club.
James Craven, a Blackfoot & constitutional lawyer, has corroborated this story & stated:
“It has been alleged with considerable supporting evidence, that some of the same forces involved in trafficking young Indian boys & girls for the rich & powerful pedophiles are also involved in key aspects of the BC Treaty Commission as well as being involved in using isolated reserves for the landing & distribution of drugs…” (“Reprisals due to exposure of pedophile ring,” Statement by James Craven, August 3, 1998).
In 1994, two elders of the Tseshaht band on Vancouver Island stated that “Edward John & Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council members Ron Hamilton & Charlie Thompson have… embezzled money from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs & the federal Department of Indian Affairs to finance an extensive drug trafficking & pedophile network” that sells drugs on Native reserves & supplies Native children to wealthy clients in Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler, and other areas (quoted in Appendix VI, Hidden from History).
Similar claims were made in Vancouver by speakers at a public tribunal on Residential Schools held in 1998, organized by the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM, a United Nations NGO with the Economic & Social Council), including Frank Martin & Helen Michel, Harriet Nahanee, and four others.
According to Martin, “Ed John sponsors drug trafficking on northern reserves using Treaty Commission & Indian Affairs money. He’s the power up there… but for Ed John to keep power he needs to manipulate drugs & the cops” (Appendix VI, Hidden from History).
Allegations of an organized drug & sex-trade involving government, business, as well as band chiefs, are not so far fetched and fit within systemic & intergenerational patterns of abuse. Many current chiefs & councilors are survivors of Residential Schools, and some have been convicted of sexual crimes, yet still remained in power. In reality, however, most sexual abuse in Native communities goes unreported, with perpetrators rarely being charged & convicted.
In 1992, for example, Native women on reserves around Victoria spoke out about concerns that sentencing circles, proposed as an alternative to imprisonment & comprised of selected elders, would be co-opted by band councils to protect male family members accused of sex crimes:
“Saanich Indians fear an experiment in native justice… will turn into a cover-up of sex abuse. Native social workers, elders, women & court workers worry their leaders will use a BC government project to keep assault charges within the community.
“Native women from Saanich Peninsula reserves say they live in fear of powerful band members who pressure & intimidate women not to report instances of assault & sexual abuse. They say crimes such as rape & child molestation are covered up by some of those closest to the alternative justice program. Most victims have yet to speak publicly because they live in fear of telephone threats, of their doors being kicked in and of their children being molested, says Mavis Henry, a Pauquachin band member.
The evidence points to widespread corruption, says Rhonda Bowie, a Tsawout native who has laid sexual assault charges against her uncle, considered an elder and leader in the native Shaker church. ‘I don’t believe this justice system helps anyone. All it does is protect the offenders.’” (Indians fear justice experiment will hush sex abuse charges, The Vancouver Sun, July 31, 1992)
Commenting on the potential for self-government, Sharon McIvor, spokeswoman for the Native Women’s Association of Canada stated “It’s really scary to know that these guys are going to be in complete control, they are going to be able to do whatever they want” (“Indians fear justice…” The Vancouver Sun, July 31, 1992).
Other reports on sexual violence & abuse in Indigenous communities reached similar conclusions:
“Today, there are northern communities in which the entire female population has been sexually assaulted by males who are living in the community with them. These men are their brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers & grandfathers. Some of these abusers hold powerful positions in band councils –most of them are held unaccountable for their assaults… Often, women feel powerless to effect change, and are threatened with further violence if they attempt to stop the abuse.” (Jackie Lynn, Colonialism & the Sexual Exploitation of First Nation’s Women, August 1998).
“A mental health worker for Indian Health Service reported, “It is the expert opinion of this writer after a records review & talking to many other health care providers, that rape, sexual assault & incest occur at a much higher incidence than generally thought. Sexual abuse at a young age is quite frequent and almost always involves a relative such as a father, brother, cousin, uncle or grandfather.”
Phyllis Old Cross Dog (Sexual Assault in Indian Country)
In his 1995 sentencing of dormitory supervisor Arthur Plint, who abused many Native children in the Port Alberni Residential School, BC Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth used the term “institutionalized pedophilia” to describe the Residential School system overall, and the systematic sexual abuse by school staff & church officials. That this would continue well after the last such schools were closed, and as many survivors gained positions of power & authority in their communities, appears logical considering how widespread patterns of intergenerational abuse have been.
SYSTEMIC SOCIAL PROBLEMS REQUIRE SYSTEMIC SOCIAL CHANGE
Considering the nature & extent of the problem, are the solutions offered by groups such as Amnesty International, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and other organizations, really viable? Will more money & police adequately protect Indigenous women & children? As violence & abuse against Indigenous women & children continues at an extremely high rate, the answer appears to be No.
Violence against Indigenous women & children is not a new phenomenon. Although we would be naïve to suggest it never existed in pre-colonial societies, its expansion to a social & systemic problem most certainly has its roots in the violent colonization of the Americas by Europeans, beginning in 1492. European colonization was fueled by racist & patriarchal ideology that was legally & morally sanctioned by the Christian church.
These beliefs served to dehumanize Indigenous people & instill in colonial settlers a profound fear & hatred. Indigenous women were seen as ‘squaws’ & whores, sexually available for depraved Europeans away from their homes & families. The result was campaigns of rape, torture, murder, and massacres. Women & children were abducted to be used as slaves & sexual objects.
The same beliefs that fueled genocidal military campaigns also guided colonial policy, including the Indian Act & Residential Schools, which were designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples by suppressing their culture & imposing European forms. It is no surprise, then, that the same techniques of rape, torture, murder, abduction, & enslavement were used in the Residential Schools.
Prior to colonization, most Indigenous nations were matrilineal, with women having far greater autonomy & power than their European counterparts. Indigenous women were frequently in positions of leadership in family, community, trade, military & ceremonial life.
Under colonization, all this changed as European culture was imposed, including patriarchal forms of social organization. Christian missionaries played an important part in this process.
Patriarchy was institutionalized under laws such as the Indian Act, which recognized only male leaders and placed the most assimilated of these into positions of power & authority through the band councils. Native women, in fact, were not even considered legal persons and were not allowed to own land or participate in band councils or even elections.
In addition, Native women who married a non-band member (Native or non-Native) lost their status, a measure designed to further undermine their position & influence in Indigenous society. Combined, these measures disempowered women politically, socially, culturally and economically, making them increasingly dependent on men & the colonial system.
By the late 1800s, Residential Schools had been established in both the US and Canada to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into European society. Run by the churches, where staff had absolute control & were accountable to no one, the result was widespread sexual, physical & mental abuse of Native children.
Many survivors returned to their communities traumatized, where the patterns of abuse learned at the schools was perpetrated against their own people. The result has been widespread intergenerational patterns of physical & sexual abuse in Indigenous communities that continue to this day.
If we agree the problem is a systemic and social one, this means that there must be systemic & social changes made. Not only must we raise awareness & understanding in an effort to change individual views & practices, we must also address ourselves to making the necessary systemic change. This must involve not only our communities, but also the entire colonial system that maintains oppression & exploitation, for it is here that the root causes of violence & abuse directed against Native women & children originate.
More money & programs, more police, will not help to make these changes. Instead, they retard our ability as a people to come to grips with this phenomenon, even if they are able to capture some of the perpetrators & provide shelter for a few women. Ultimately, they will increase our dependence on the colonial regime while perpetuating division within our communities, at the same time disarming us of our ability to self-organize and take action.
INCITE!, a US-based women’s organization, has stated that,”Law enforcement approaches to violence against women may deter some acts of violence in the short term. However, as an overall strategy for ending violence [against women] criminalization has not worked.
“The reliance on state-funding… has increased the professionalization of the anti-violence movement & alienated it from its community-organization, social justice roots…
“The reliance on the criminal justice system has taken power away from women’s ability to organize collectively to stop violence & has invested this power within the state. The result is that women who seek redress in the criminal justice system feel disempowered & alienated. It has also promoted an individualistic approach…. Such that the only way people think they can intervene in stopping violence is to call the police. This reliance has shifted our focus from developing ways communities can collectively respond to violence.”
(Conquest; Sexual Violence & American Indian Genocide, pp. 171-72)
In the past, before colonialism, our peoples had the ability to protect ourselves from both external & internal threats. People were held accountable for anti-social crimes and could not seek refuge behind closed doors or colonial institutions. Under colonialism, this ability to defend ourselves has been dismantled along with the breakdown of family & community structure.
DIA: DOMESTIC INTERNAL ABUSE
“Domestic violence & sexual abuse among Native Americans have become a problem of epidemic proportions that effects both old & young…” (Charon Asetoyer, Seminole Tribune, June 17, 1999)
“It is commonly known throughout Indian Country that 90% of Indian women in chemical dependency treatment are victims of rape & childhood sexual abuse.” Terri Henry (Cherokee, quoted in Sexual Assault in Indian Country)
It would be a grave mistake to see violence & abuse against Native women only at the level of serial killers & unknown predatory males stalking sex-trade workers. In its 1989 survey, the Ontario Native Women’s Association found that 80% of Indigenous women had experienced some form of family violence, with 53% reporting they had been physically abused. According to most data, the vast majority of abuse & violence against women & children in general is perpetrated by male partners or family members (with most of this going unreported).
The European family structure, in which the man is traditionally the head of the family (“His home is his castle”), itself enables patriarchal violence & abuse to occur, while at the same time concealing it behind closed doors.
Every household then becomes a separate ‘kingdom’, in which the levels of abuse rest entirely on the nature of the individual male in command. Community division & social isolation enable this abuse to continue, along with tolerance, indifference, or outright denial, by family & community members.
In regards to violence & abuse against Native women & children, it is in the family & community structures where real change must be made, for it is also here that the vast majority of abuse occurs. It is from the home that many Indigenous children & youth attempt to escape in the first place, through gangs, drugs, alcohol, & urbanization. Along with poverty, it is this domestic violence & abuse that propels so many Indigenous women & children into drugs & prostitution.
IDENTIFYING ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Domestic violence & abuse is based on power & control; usually, it results from the efforts of a male to control & assert power over women and/or children. Alcohol & drugs are often a part of this abuse, and are seen as contributing factors to the loss of self-control associated with violent & abusive acts. This power & control is manifested in different ways:
• Psychological Abuse includes intimidation, controlling behavior, isolation from family & friends, possessiveness & intense jealousy, control of money & other resources, as well as verbal abuse such as threats, degrading language or constant criticism.
• Physical Abuse includes acts such as slapping, punching, kicking, shoving, etc. It can result in assaults & death.
• Sexual Abuse involves forced sexual acts such as molesting & rape, or violent & degrading sex.
For women or youth in a violent & abusive relationship or situation, they must devise a safety & escape plan for themselves and their children (if any).
These might include:
• Talk to others that you trust so that they are aware of your situation.
• Telling trusted friends & neighbors to intervene or alert others if they hear or see violent assaults occurring.
• Plan a safe location to go to if you decide to leave. It may be a local transition house/women’s shelter, a relative or friend, where your partner cannot locate or approach you.
• Acquire money & resources to aid in transportation, food, etc.
• Packing bag for yourself & children and storing at friend’s.
• Putting ID or important documents (i.e., custody papers) in a safe place, both your own and child (if any).
TAKE ACTION AGAINST ABUSERS!
• Men who abuse women and/or children must be exposed. Take or acquire photographs of individuals confirmed to be abusers and anonymously make posters revealing their actions. Share information & knowledge, both within & between communities. This alerts others to the problem and enables them to better protect themselves and/or children.
It may also result in more severe consequences for abusers, so every effort should be made to confirm charges against specific individuals.
• Form a group of trusted friends to take direct action against violence & abuse when necessary.
• Challenge patriarchal attitudes & beliefs in the family, at school, at work, and in the community. This includes beliefs that men are inherently smarter, stronger, better, etc., and that women are naturally inferior, stupid, weak, etc. It also includes views that women are sexual objects to be exploited by men (i.e., the glamorization of prostitution & pimping as promoted through corporate entertainment).
• Whether you are male or female, work to promote women’s leadership & participation in the resistance movement. In Chiapas, Mexico, many commanders in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation are Mayan women.
It is our duty as warriors to defend & protect our people, territory & way of life. Abuse & violence against women & children, whether in the form of attitudes or actions, must be challenged. The traditional role & status of women in Indigenous society must be reaffirmed & strengthened. The church & state have a long history of institutionalized violence & sexual abuse against our people, which has resulted in intergenerational patterns of abuse within our communities. The criminal justice system has proven itself incompetent & incapable of protecting Indigenous women & children. This struggle will necessitate confronting both abusers in the community and the source of systemic abuse itself: the colonial system.
Located across the border from El Paso, Texas, Juarez is a sprawling city of some 1.3 million. Its population has grown as new maquiladora factories, part of free trade zones set up in the 1990s, have been established along the US-Mexican border. Juarez has also become infamous for the number of disappeared and murdered women. Since the 1990s, hundreds of young women have disappeared, with some estimates as high as 700. As many as 380 bodies have been found, many with signs of torture & mutilation.
As in the Vancouver cases, government officials & police have long denied there is any serial killer at work, or that the killings are in any way related. While officials & police appear baffled by these grisly killings, many women’s organizations, human rights groups, and individuals have their own theory: it is in fact government officials, police and wealthy businessmen who are behind many of the disappearances & killings. It is their involvement that has blocked any serious investigations.
In fact, in 2004 a special federal prosecutor Guadalupe Lopez Urbina, recommended charges against dozens of current & former police officers for negligence in dealing with the killings. But state officials charged only two investigators, and later dropped the charges. According to one spokesperson for Amnesty International USA, “In these cases, it is evident that state authorities were incapable and unwilling to provide justice.”
Colonialism & the Sexual Exploitation of First Nation’s Women, Jackie Lynn, , Paper presented to American Psychological Association, 106th anniversary convention, San Francisco, CA, August 1998, see www.prostitutionresearch.com/how_prostitution_works/000017.html
Conquest; Sexual Violence & American Indian Genocide, by Andrea Smith, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
Hidden from History, by Rev. Kevin D. Annett, “Appendix VI: Evidence of crimes against aboriginal children, including pedophilia,” pub. by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001
Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence & the Colonization of First Nations Women, by Melissa Farley, Jacqueline Lynne, and Ann J. Cotton, Prostitution Research & Education, San Francisco, CA, 2005
Sexual Assault in Indian Country, a report by the US-based National Sexual Violence Resource Center (available from www.nsvrc.org)
Speaking of Abuse, pamphlet by BC Legal Services Society, January 2004
Stolen Sisters, Amnesty International Canada, 2004