by Rachel Heaton
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this monthly column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.
I’m Rachel Heaton. I am a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe in Auburn, Washington. I’m also a descendant of the Duwamish peoples, the original inhabitants of Seattle, and do hold descendancy with European folks, mostly Welsh, German, and Irish. I’m a mother to three children, ages 22, 14, and 2. I work as a cultural educator for the Muckleshoot Tribe, and I’m a co-founder of Mazaska Talks.
Inspired by our learnings from Standing Rock, specifically finding out which banks funded the pipeline and learning about the coalition work done by organizers to get the City of Seattle to divest their money from Wells Fargo, co-founder Matt Remle and I formed Mazaska Talks. We use it as a way to educate people on issues related to the harming of Mother Earth and repression of Indigenous rights, then to organize action. For example, because we see the harm brought by the fossil fuel industry, we organize divestment campaigns.
Issues like climate change, racial discrimination, and gender-based violence can feel like they are too big to fix, and even more overwhelming when they intersect. This is the case with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, often referenced as #MMIWG. This is a movement focused on bringing to light the high rate of harm inflicted upon Indigenous women and girls, who are murdered at 10 times the rate of other ethnicities in the United States and 12 times the rate of other cultural groups in Canada. Exact numbers of #MMIWG are hard to assess, as reporting is low. It’s important to note that this violence is also inflicted on Indigenous Two-Spirit, nonbinary people, trans people, and men.
The issue of violence against Indigenous women is not new, as we live in a patriarchal, misogynistic culture. However, the presence of oil projects amplifies the danger. When fossil fuel lines are planned, workers are brought in to build them. The people building these projects are overwhelmingly non-indigenous men. The pipelines are more often than not constructed on and through Indigenous lands, land that has for centuries been seen as at once valuable and claimable to colonizers, thus putting the “man camps” in close proximity to vulnerable Indigneous peoples. The men, isolated and separated from their own families and communities, often inflict harm on local Indigeous peoples, leading to the fact of #MMIWG. This existence of man camps, in service of the fossil fuel industry, also contributes to the use of the horrifying practice of human trafficking of Indigenous peoples and others.
Why is no action taken when persons from the man camps take, abuse, and murder people from Indigneous communities? There are many entities with a lot of power that have invested big money into the continuation of the pipeline work and, thus, the existence of the man camps. The oil industry, very simply, makes their money with the pipelines; it is their business: no oil; no pipelines; no company. Local, state, and federal governments are invested because when a pipeline is built on their land, they make money through taxes and the leases. Politicians who come out in favor of oil projects focus on the (short-term) jobs and long-term tax revenue; it’s worth noting that politicians who vote against environmental policies receive more campaign contributions from oil and gas companies. And banks are invested in these projects because they provide the loans that allow the work to occur, which then brings them interest when those loans are repaid. For those of us who use oil in our daily lives to fuel our cars and more, we must understand that the price is much higher than what is taken from our debit cards at the pump.
We can no longer look away.
Since the interconnected powers invested in the fossil fuel industry refuse to bear any responsibility for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the burden of ending the epidemic is placed on the shoulders of the Indigenous communities from which they have been taken. #MMIWG is framed as a mystery. An anomaly. A perpetrator-less crime. Indigenous communities, already traumatized by poor treatment from governments and corporations over the centuries, experience trauma redoubled, tripled, and quadrupled as the pipeline work continues and new man camps are placed.
The loss of Indigenous women and girls is not only destructive for the communities who love them, their loss affects everyone on this planet. As the First People of Turtle Island, we hold the longest-standing knowledge of how to care for the land, knowledge that a century of abusive residential boarding schools and more than four centuries of forced migration and literal and cultural starvation could not erase. And yet when Indigenous peoples take action to care for community, defend a waterway, or prevent the devastation that comes with yet another new pipeline, we are not just thinking about “our” community or only Indigenous peoples: We’re trying to save the world as a whole. No matter who you are or where you live, our efforts benefit you.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been seeing more and more non-Indigenous peoples waking up to the realities and injustices I’ve mentioned above. Attribute it to being stuck at home with more time to Google things or doomscroll. Attribute it to the pain of new financial woes due to unemployment or underemployment from pandemic closures. Or attribute it to personal or familial pain related to illness or fear during the pandemic. Whatever has woken you up to the interconnected reasons for the pain you and your Indigneous neighbors are experiencing, this is a good thing.
If you’re just waking up, keep going. Keep researching. Keep learning. Resist reaching out to Indigenous or other burdened communities to ask them to educate you. That is extra work for them, and they’re already tired and traumatized. Instead, do the work to find the people from our communities providing resources in the form of books, workshops, classes, or journalism. Follow organizations like Mazaska Talks on social media to learn about our trusted news sources and partners. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable or defensive when you realize some of the history you’ve learned is wrong and that the systems you’ve been complicit in (and benefitted from) need to change. And when you’re ready, join us in being a part of that change. Pick up your bullhorn, your microphone, your protest sign, your voting ballot. As Angela Davis said, “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
For those in the Seattle area, you’re invited to join the MMIP Solidarity Prayer Walk & Unity Healing Gathering on May 15, 2021. There’s much work to be done — and healing — to do done together, and we’re happy you’re here with us.
Rachel Heaton is a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, a descendant of the Duwamish people, and also has European descent. She is a co-founder of the Indigenous-led divestment organization Mazaska Talks and a culture educator for the Muckleshoot Tribe. She is a mother to 3 beautiful children: Mercedes, Nylah, and Dahnahhi.
📸 Featured Image: Rachel at the Canoe Journeys protocol with her son, daughter, and sister. Photo courtesy of Rachel Heaton.
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