By Kristin Jones
Taté Walker, citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was once a student at Cherokee Trail Elementary School in Parker, Colo.
While there, Walker learned nothing about the Trail of Tears, in which people of the Cherokee and other nations were rounded up from their homes to make room for white settlers under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. In 1838, around 4,000 Cherokees died in a forced march westward to what is now Oklahoma.
“This was a time in my life where being Native was a surface-level identifier,” said Walker, who also has Irish heritage and can pass as white. “Kind of like, ‘Hey I’m 10 years old, I love Disney, macaroni and cheese and I’m Lakota.’”
To grow up Indigenous in the U.S. is to endure a kind of erasure that perpetuates historical traumas. Young kids don’t see themselves represented in storybooks or history lessons; older kids feel the jabs of crude and racist sports team mascots.
For too many Indigenous womxn (more on this term below), the erasure is physical. More than four out of five Indigenous womxn have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice. More than half have experienced sexual violence, the same study found, and their attackers were overwhelmingly non-Native.
In some counties, the murder rate of Indigenous womxn is as high as ten times the national average, according to a 2008 report funded by the Department of Justice. An untold number of Indigenous womxn have gone missing or been murdered.
Today, Walker is a storyteller and activist who refers to themselves as “a banner-waving Two Spirit feminist,” whose preferred pronouns are they, them and Mother. They have seized on the opportunity to tell Indigenous stories in rich and complex ways, most recently as a speaker for The Trust’s Health Equity Learning Series, addressing a racist legacy that continues to enact violence against Indigenous womxn.
(Why womxn? This is the spelling that Walker used, noting that it rejects the use of the word “men” as its root, and is explicitly inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming as well as cisgender womxn.)
Their education in Indigenous history and identity happened later in their adolescence and adulthood, according to their writing and their recent talk: as a North Dakota high school student assigned to write about a university’s racist mascot, as a young ward of the state first introduced to inípi (or sweat lodge) ceremony in the youth criminal justice system, at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. and while working as a journalist.
Historical trauma against Indigenous people isn’t just historical, as Walker explained it.
We remember the horrors of Wounded Knee or Sand Creek. We remember how religious and government boarding schools were established to kill tribal identities of Native kids. We’re forced every year to re-experience ignorant celebrations of historically suspect people like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus, who are responsible for some of the worst genocidal policies and state-sanctioned acts of violence Native people ever experienced. And we grow up with these stories about how America has always hated us, and those stories are legitimized through our own daily experiences with violence.
The trauma sometimes takes the form of official indifference or disbelief. When Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, eight months pregnant, disappeared from her home in Fargo, N.D. in August 2017, her parents suspected their upstairs neighbors. But police searched the neighbors’ home, and the deputy police chief said that there was “nothing to suggest criminal activity.” Later, LaFontaine-Greywind’s mutilated body was found in a river; her baby had been cut from her body and was found in the neighbors’ home.
In response, former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) introduced Savanna’s Act, which would have improved communication and collaboration between U.S. law enforcement and tribal authorities. But the law stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
The assaults sometimes take the form of police violence. Indigenous people are more likely to be killed in a police encounter than any other racial or ethnic group, according to a CNN analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When Denver resident Lynn Eagle Feather called 911 in July 2015 after her son Paul Castaway came at her with a knife, she told the dispatcher that Castaway was mentally ill and drunk. When police arrived, they shot him dead.
“I called for help, not a killing,” Eagle Feather told Westword. An internal investigation by the Denver Police Department determined the killing was justified. Eagle Feather, who is Lakota, has filed a wrongful death suit.
The trauma of violence can be passed down to children—even if they haven’t experienced it themselves. Walker volunteered for a rape crisis center in South Dakota, where she remembered talking to an Indigenous mother and daughter about consensual sex. The mother offered that they’d already had that conversation.
“I don’t lie to my kids,” Walker recalled the mother saying. “I just tell it like it is. When she gets raped, just lay there so it’s over with.”
That’s daily life for Indigenous womxn, said Walker. “That’s not an ‘if’—that’s a ‘when.’”
It’s a mistake, though, to talk about this routine kind of violence as an “epidemic”—as if it’s something biological and inevitable, they said.
“Violence against Native womxn is historical, political and purposeful,” Walker said, noting that federal law has accommodated this violence by destroying tribal legal systems.
Tribal courts are all but banned from prosecuting non-Natives for crimes committed on tribal lands. Since a 2013 change to the Violence Against Women Act, there has been a narrow and hard-won exception for domestic violence, but it comes with onerous statutory requirements and costs for tribal courts that try to assert this authority.
There are reasons for that, said Walker.
“Essentially, white people were scared they would be treated the way they see Natives and other people of color treated in U.S. courtrooms—with a disproportionate number of convictions and stricter sentencing.”
Tribal authorities still can’t charge attackers with murder, child abuse, elder abuse, many cases of rape, or even with attacking responding officers. The Violence Against Women Act was not re-authorized in 2018, leaving these loopholes in place and its funding uncertain.
There are simple ways to fight injustice and violence against Indigenous womxn, said Walker.
A lot of white folks and white-passing folks, we shut down when Black, Brown and Indigenous people make requests for white folks to shoulder their fair share of the burden—meaning most, if not all of the burden—when we talk about dismantling the racist systems we live in. I’d love for us as white folks, white-passing folks to get to a place where we can start looking at our defensive reactions and recognize those as agents of, "Oh, I have work to do. I’m not familiar with this issue, and my ignorance has me all up on my feelings, so it’s up to me as a quality individual to do better and ensure my squad, my circle, does as well." One of the best ways to begin dismantling racism, sexism and settler colonialism is to listen to the powerless, and then take action to end their oppressions.
Call your legislators, Walker said. Vote in ways that will positively impact Indigenous communities. Demand tribal courts receive proper resources and support so they can implement the Violence Against Women Act. Demand accurate representation in media, including children’s literature.
Above all, they said: “Believe survivors.”