by Alexandra Weiss
Where do you go to grieve when someone you love is missing? How do you mourn for someone stolen away, whose disappearance or murder has gone un- or under-reported, has not been solved, and whose murderer has gone unpunished? These questions have been faced by thousands of Indigenous people across North America during the decades-long crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit people (MMIWG2S).
It is hard to document the scope of the MMIWG2S crisis. These disappearances and murders have not been prioritized by law enforcement or received much media coverage,so many cases go un- or underreported.1 However, the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which runs a database of MMIWG2S estimates 4000 Indigenous women, girls and two spirit people have gone missing or been murdered since 1900.2
When it does receive media and academic attention, the MMIWG2S crisis is often compared to an epidemic, a term which mischaracterizes the problem as something out of our control. However, the term epidemic has stuck, even within scholarly essays that otherwise explore the ways in which terminology contributes to the crisis, such as Clay Nelson’s “The Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in North America.” Nelson quotes Mi’kmaq lawyer, scholar, and activist Pamela Palmater who argues that “even the term ‘missing’ is a misnomer. It seems to imply these women and girls just got lost or ran away for a few days. The reality is that these women and girls are kidnapped, taken, or otherwise held against their will—a situation far more sinister than the word ‘missing’ might imply.”3 However, Nelson does not stop to question the implications of the term “epidemic,” a term which, though it acknowledges the scope and scale of loss, glosses over the fact that, unlike deaths caused by disease, these disappearances and deaths are the direct result of the actions of one or more people who do not value the lives of those they brutalize. A more accurate descriptor is genocide.4
MMIWG2S are treated as disposable—as less than people—by those who harm them as well as by the system that refuses to pay attention to their disappearances and murders.5 This toxic view stems from colonial ideologies that position Indigenous people as subhuman, as obstacles to land use and extractive industry, and as impediments to the growth and power of the settler state.6 It is no surprise then, that many people vanish from areas of contested land claims with a lot of temporary traffic, such as “man camps” for pipeline laborers, which have repeatedly been linked to increased rates of sexual violence and sex trafficking against nearby Indigenous communities.7 Given the lack of regard shown to Indigenous women, girls and two spirit people by those who perpetrate and contribute to the violent, toxic culture of man camps, it is hard not to wonder how many many MMIWG2S disappeared at the hands of pipeline laborers. But their cases remain, for the most part, unsolved, law enforcement’s inaction feeding back into that settler view that Indigenous people are disposable.
Although reporting has increased somewhat since 2000, MMIWG2S cases get significantly less media coverage than the disappearances and deaths of white women.8 The relative silence of the media not only tacitly supports the colonial notion that Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit people are disposable, but leaves MMIWG2S to disappear twice: first, from their homes and families, and second, through the lack of reporting.
Counteracting the settler culture of Indigenous disposability, many memorial art installations have been dedicated to the memories of MMIWG2, honoring the missing and the dead in culturally-specific fashions. Such memorial projects often involve traditional art such as beadwork, shawls, moccasins, and non-visual art such as storytelling. This allows for memorials to honor the missing and murdered as unquestionably Indigenous people, returning them in memory to the communities from which they were stolen.
Different memorials honor MMIWG2S in different ways. The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit Project shares the life stories of MMIWG2S from Indigenous nations across North America as told by their families. These stories, grounded in Indigenous storytelling methodology and a “safe, cultural context” provide a chance for communities to heal and to remember MMIWG2S for who they were, not just for how they disappeared.9
Meanwhile, the Walking With Our Sisters Project centers around grieving the incompleteness of lives taken too soon and raising awareness about the crisis. Walking With Our Sisters is a collection of moccasin tops, decorated to honor MMIWG2S. “Each pair of moccasin tops are intentionally not sewn into moccasins to represent the unfinished lives of the women and girls.”10 By using traditional art to represent, honor and grieve, Walking With Our Sisters connects artists, families and other community members to those they have lost on a cultural as well as personal level. This culturally-specific way of memorializing also resists the genocidal nature of the MMIWG2S crisis, by refusing to allow Indigenous practices and culture to be silenced or erased, as they have been historically by the settler state.11 Made by more than a thousand artists across North America and beyond, the moccasin tops exist in a space of shared grief, as well as shared community and culture between individual nations. Artist Penelope Anderson’s moccasin tops, depicting “the universal Tree of Life” speak to the collaborative nature of this project: “My roots represent our tribes, and the branches of many colors represent all of us working together in this beautiful collaboration. The heart belongs to us all.”12
This function of memorials as a means of acknowledging MMIWG2S as unforgotten and unforgettable parts of Indigenous communities culminates in a recent memorial called Manidoonsag Imaa Mikinaako-Minisiing (or Sacred Spirits of Turtle Island), an amphitheater decorated with murals telling Anishinaabe stories of creation, life, death and the next world.12 The amphitheater is intended as a community gathering space, where vigils can be held and families can go to contemplate and remember their loved ones. By bringing the community together into a space that highlights how death is a part of life, Manidoonsag Imaa Mikinaako-Minisiing offers a place to heal through remembering the unbreakable connections of Indigenous community and kinship. As a brochure for the memorial’s unveiling in October 2021 states: “prior to being born, we are all Sacred Spirits, as we enter and live our human existence on Mother Earth we are Sacred Spirits, when our lives get interrupted through acts of violence resulting in the becoming one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls and Two-Spirited we are still Sacred Spirits; just as we are when we sit alongside our Ancestors in the Spiritual Realm.”13
The crisis of MMIWG2S is genocidal and tragic, compounded by the fact that the media and justice system continue to fail victims and their families. As such, much of the awareness around MMIWG2S is raised through memorial art rather than news coverage. These memorials, however, do so much more than just raise awareness. Memorials to MMIWG2S honor those who have died or disappeared through connections that cannot be severed, those of community and kinship: ties that even death cannot break.
1. Urban Indian Health Institute. “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.”
2. Sovereign Bodies Institute and Brave Heart Society. “Zuya Winyan Wicayu’onihan,” 6.
3. Palmater, P. (2016). “Shining light on the dark places: Addressing police racism and sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls in the National Inquiry.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 28(2), 253-284. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjwl.28.2.253.
4.Gallagher, Gail. “Art, Activism and the Creation of Awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG); Walking With Our Sisters, REDress Project.” 2020, 9.
5. Gallagher, 22.
6. Sovereign Bodies Institute and Brave Heart Society, 13.
7. Sovereign Bodies Institute and Brave Heart Society, 8. Also see: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/man-camps-and-predator-ec_b_3700640.
8. Sovereign Bodies Institute and Brave Heart Society, 6. Also see Gallagher, 44.
9. Native Women’s Association of Canada. “Voices of our Sisters in Spirit.” 2nd ed. March, 2009, 3-5.
10. Walking With Our Sisters. “The Project.” http://walkingwithoursisters.ca/about/the-project/.
11. Gallagher, 53-54.
12. “MMIWG2S Mural Unveiling and October 4th MMIWG2S Awareness Day Event,” 2.