The year is 2020. It is 528 years since the invasion of the Americas began in 1492. We are in a 500+ year crisis in which Indigenous women have been targeted systematically by colonizers. There are countless women who have been added to the 500+ year long list of what is now referred to as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). The master narrative tells us that Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people are deserving of violence and are a threat to the colonial nations. Indigenous teachings tell us that our worlds cannot exist without them. Here, in 2020, it is Indigenous women and queer activists that are on the frontlines of this crisis. We lead searches, reunite families, help care for the dead, teach students and community what the root cause is, and advocate politically at the federal and state for systematic change. Armed with prayer, hashtags, political bills, and the strength of our ancestors, MMIW is much more than a political movement. MMIW is a movement towards healing.
The origin stories of the MMIW movement tell of the hashtag first emerging in Canada through First Nations women calling attention to this crisis. A combination of activism, art, and social media prompted the Canadian government to launch the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016 as part of their truth and reconciliation efforts (Government of Canada, 2020). While the federal site does not credit the Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people who helped make this inquiry possible, their story will not be forgotten. The Walking With Our Sisters exhibit started by Métis artist and author Christi Belcourt began to draw attention to the 1,181+ Indigenous women and girls that were murdered over the span of 30 years in Canada. This exhibit featured beaded moccasin vamps that were created and donated to honor the lives lost with “the unfinished moccasins represent[ing] the unfinished lives of the women whose lives were cut short” (Walking With Our Sisters, n.d.). It primarily traveled around Canada while gathering vamps from around the world to help raise awareness and bring a visual representation of the extent of the MMIW crisis. As a result, the use of #MMIW quickly became a uniting thread that crossed geopolitical borders.
In her article “Connected Activism: Indigenous Uses of Social Media for Shaping Political Change,” Yaqui scholar Marisa Duarte (2017) explains that digital networks connect the specific causes, “as well as to broader imaginaries about both meaningful Indigenous survival and quality-of-life amid the crush of neoliberal social and political rules” (p. 2). This essay will discuss the rhetorical use of #MMIW as a digital network by activist and advocates as a counter to colonial discourse around MMIW as political leverage during the 2020 elections. Further this essay highlights the rhetorical choices of MMIW activists and advocates, discusses the ways in which federal efforts and capitalist endeavors exploit MMIW symbolism, and how MMIW activists and advocates counter those efforts. It is written from my perspective as an Indigenous activist, academic, and MMIW advocate.
The MMIW hashtag as a rhetorical device is coupled with the color red during protests and public testimonies. At rallies, in court rooms, at public events, and in capitol buildings MMIW activists and advocates are often seen wearing red—the color of the MMIW movement. Often times a red hand print is seen on people’s faces as well, covering their mouths to represent both the silence around the MMIW crisis and the silence in death. These actions follow the rhetorical device of the performance of activism, a powerful tool in creating public memory through digital archives and embodied experiences. Through these rhetorical choices, “the transmission of traumatic memory from victim to witness involves the shared and participatory act of telling and listening associated with live performance” (Taylor, 2003, p. 167). Those who bear witness to public testimony, songs, marches, and speeches remember the stories and images, and even if the details begin to fade, the emotions experienced will be remembered. Most importantly, people are prompted to want to create change to address the trauma they heard about as a result of the rhetorical choices of MMIW activists and advocates.
The performance of political gestures that exploit the MMIW crisis pales in comparison. In November 2019 and with one year left of his term, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order to establish a federal task force on missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. The task force was established in response to “legitimate concerns of American Indian and Alaska Native communities” (“Executive Order on Establishing the Task Force,” 2019). In 2020, the task force was given the name Operation Lady Justice (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.). The terminology “legitimate concerns” echoes paternalistic ways of addressing Indigenous people and communities by the federal government—a continuation that it knows what’s best for us as Indigenous people. Further, Operation Lady Justice as a name reflects a patriarchal attitude towards Indigenous women and that MMIW is just another “lady issue.” Lastly, the task force only focuses on American Indian and Alaska Native communities, a reminder that the federal government decides who fits the definition of who counts as Indigenous people. In contrast, MMIW grassroots efforts recognize that this crisis spills across the boundaries of tribal lands and settler borders as well as impacts Indigenous women outside of the sovereign Tribal nations.
In July of 2020, Operation Lady Justice opened its first cold case office in Bloomington, Minnesota. Ivanka Trump stood on a stage with two headdresses propped on either side of the base of the podium, visually signaling her superiority. The headdresses removed from their place of honor on a person’s head who earned them served as a reminder of when Indigenous scalps, body parts, and sacred objects (like the eagle feathers on the headdress) were displayed as trophies by colonizers. During her speech, Ivanka Trump spoke of her father’s commitment to forgotten people before she cut the red ribbon to officially open the office. Indigenous activists and MMIW advocates immediately responded with criticism about using the MMIW crisis and Indigenous people as props and political leverage during an election year. Not one person from the local, grassroots MMIW task force were invited to the ribbon cutting nor were they offered an opportunity to speak.
As a response to the first cold case office opening, I created a map to visually represent the locations of the seven offices scheduled to open in comparison with the top ten states with highest MMIW data available. While the MMIW numbers are not complete, they are what we have to work with for now. In creating this map, I worked with a small group of Indigenous women on what it should include and the message that would be sent with each piece added on. The resulting image was shared on social media through different community members across several states using #MMIW. The image was designed to be a visual representation of the disconnect between federal efforts and grassroots efforts, as well as the disconnect from what communities are facing. The image was also made to help community members and advocates have a way to explain why the cold case offices and Operation Lady Justice did not feel right. Further, the location of the offices symbolize that Indigenous people are not viewed as knowing what is needed nor as being capable of having a say in where the need is.
Following the first cold case office opening, Deborah Maytubee Shipman, Executive Director of MMIW USA, and I were invited to talk on Dr. Melissa Bird’s (2020) Natural Born Rebel facebook live show. We discussed the political game being played with peoples’ actual lives through the cold case office opening and callousness of Operation Lady Justice. Popular press and many politicians describe MMIW as an epidemic in coverage of the cold case offices. Muscogee Creek lawyer and legal scholar Sarah Deer (2015) asserts that using epidemic as a descriptor of violence against Indigenous women is “an attention grabbing word” that is short lived and “allow[s] society to absolve itself of blame” (p. ix). Deborah and I discussed MMIW as what it is, a crisis. We talked about the systemic issues and how Operation Lady Justice is another example of symbolic gestures. Meanwhile groups like MMIW USA are assisting with searches, supporting impacted families, and reuniting those fortunate to be found. This work is not done for likes, votes, political flexing, or personal gain. It is because every day, there is an Indigenous woman, girl, or Two-Spirit person waiting to come home, either physically or in spirit.
Another related issue Deborah and I talked about with Dr. Bird was the profiteering off of MMIW. This has increasingly become an issue, and coupled with the huge increase in online shopping due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MMIW merchandise is becoming more common. I have been commenting on culturally appropriative sites for many years, but this depth of exploitation takes it to another level. I began commenting and screen capturing my comments with the image of the shirts before being deleted to help spread awareness and encourage folk to do the same. Using #MMIW helps spread awareness about this issue that negatively impacts families and search effort. MMIW and the associated symbols are not meant to be a commodity to profit off. Deborah explained how it’s not MMIW USA who is being robbed of those resources—it’s the families they could have helped. She explained how many times families have to pay for their own searches and travel, which is another issue Operation Lady Justice is not addressing. Luckily MMIW USA has been able to have one of the sites remove their logo that was stolen by one of these exploitative companies. Unfortunately people think they are helping spread awareness when they are actually supporting overseas companies looking for fast cash more than anything.
What then does Operation Lady Justice and the t-shirt companies have in common? And what does it have to do with rhetorics? Both exploit the pain in Indigenous communities with little regard for those actually impacted. The cold case offices and executive order that started them within a year of a presidential elections, a grasp for votes. The t-shirt companies are just looking for profit not matter the impact. Both leverage the emotional ties to MMIW that the general public hold as well as exploit the impact the rhetorical use of MMIW symbolism. People want something to happen, something to change. The federal administration and the t-shirt companies both intentionally use terminology and symbols that represent the MMIW movement in ways disconnected from the very people impacted and those on the front lines of this crisis. Ivanka Trump and the ribbon cutters wore all red, the color that symbolizes the MMIW movement as explained at the start of this essay. The t-shirt companies use red hand prints as well as stolen art and logos that people recognize making their merchandise less likely to be questioned. They both assert trust and credibility very strategically. When countered, it is harder for many to accept there is an issue. That is how they both continue on, by appropriating a cause they know little about.
During the elections, all of this was still fresh in my mind. I watched the Native & Indigenous vote roll in, knowing that many were voting for the first time. I heard my Uncle John Trudell’s voice in my head talking about how voting has been used to get us to play the oppressors game—investing in the system participates in validating the same systems that oppress us in ways to ask us to compromise. For Indigenous people, this can be a constant struggle in which a legacy of broken promises continues across administrations. All I could think during the 2020 elections was, yes this is true, and we also need to survive all this. We will continue to survive. Surely we have learned to read the gestures for what they are. As I cast my vote my heart was heavy with the weight of these simultaneous realities. And while the votes went on for days, I thought of the women leading their community to vote by horseback on Navajo Nation. They served as a reminder that we will continue to show up and do the work that is needed as Indigenous women in order to create change. Using social media as a platform allows us to connect and strategize in order to do this work.
I am in agreement with Duarte (2017) that, “Indigenous activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and many other leaders must effectively and strategically push however they can from whatever digital/social/political position they hold, the embodiments of decolonisation and perpetual performers of radical change” (p. 10). We always have and always will find a way to remain connected to each other and to create the changes we know we need for our communities, even if it is through a hashtag. That hashtag has helped spread awareness and the passage of several pieces of state legislature to address the MMIW crisis in a localized sense as well as Savanah’s Act and Not Invisible at the federal level. Change is coming, and it is not because of symbolic gestures of colonial systems. It is because of the collective efforts of Indigenous activists and advocates as well as their ability to use hashtags, imagery, speeches, and legislative bills rhetorically to help move change forward on our own terms as Indigenous people.
Bird, Melissa. (2020, August 7). MMIW USA update, logo hijackings, and Operation Lady Justice Task Force. YouTube.
Deer, Sarah. (2015). The beginning and end of rape: Confronting sexual violence in Native America. U of Minnesota P.
Duarte, Marisa. (2017). Connected activism: Indigenous uses of social media for shaping political change. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 21, 1–12.
Government of Canada. (2020, November 26). National inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Women and Gender Equity Canada.
Taylor, Diana. (2003). The archive and the repertoire: Performing cultural memory in the Americas. Duke UP.
United States Department of Justice. (n.d.) The Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. Operation Lady Justice.
Walking With Our Sisters. (n.d.). A commemorative art installation for the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada and the United States. Walking Without Our Sisters.
Executive Order on Establishing the Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. (2019, Nov. 26). Federal Register: The Daily journal of the U.S. Government.
Luhui Whitebear (she/her/hers) is Coastal Chumash and the Center Director of the Oregon State University Native American Longhouse Eena Haws. She completed her PhD through Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at OSU. She also received her B.S. in Ethnic Studies, a second B.S. in Anthropology, and M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies (WGSS, Ethnic Studies, and Queer Studies focus), all from OSU. She is a mother, poet, and Indigenous activist. Her research focuses on Indigenous rhetorics, Indigeneity & reclaiming Indigenous identity/gender roles, murdered & missing Indigenous women, Indigenous resistance movements, and national laws & policies that impact Indigenous people. Luhui is passionate about disrupting systems of oppression and creating positive change in society.