Heather Takes Horse and Jean Bearcrane (second from left, middle) from the Montana Native Women’s Coalition and Zonta Club of Billings members Amy Schmitt, Melanie Tripp, Suzie DeBar and Renee Coppock at the 2021 North American InterDistrict Meeting.

Webinar highlights how Zonta clubs can work with Indigenous women's organizations on awareness and advocacy

On 11 October, the United States observed Indigenous Peoples' Day, celebrating the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples. It was also the first time a U.S. president has officially recognized Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Zonta International commemorated Indigenous Peoples' Day by co-hosting a webinar with the Zonta Club of Billings and the Montana Native Women's Coalition titled, "Advocating with Indigenous Women: How Zonta clubs and Indigenous Women's Organizations Can Work Together."

The event began with Zonta International President Sharon Langenbeck discussing Zonta's vision, which she said we cannot realize without recognizing the increased vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls.

Renee Coppock, former District 12 governor, then shared statistics about missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP) around the world.

In the U.S., the Department of Justice estimates that Indigenous women are around 2.5 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault when compared to the general population. In Canada, Indigenous women are six times more likely to be victims of homicide than non-Indigenous women. In Western Australia, Aboriginal people make up 17.5% of unsolved missing person cases, despite making up just 3% of the state's population.

Heather TakesHorse, executive assistant at the Montana Native Women's Coalition, shared the stories of three Indigenous women and how their murders helped create change.

Hanna Harris, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana, was murdered in 2013 when she was 21 years old. When she was first reported missing, the authorities did not take it seriously and did not act right away due to a lack of resources. In 2017, U.S. Senator Steve Daines introduced a resolution that designated May 5—Harris's birthday—as "National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls." The resolution was adopted by the Senate in April 2021.

Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota, was 22 years old and eight months pregnant when she was murdered in 2017. Savanna's mother told reporters that she felt as though the police did not care about her daughter's disappearance and were not taking the case seriously. As a result of Savanna's murder, former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp introduced Savanna's Act, which was signed into law in October 2020. The bill "aims to improve tribal access to federal crime information databases and create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native American women."

Tina Fontaine, a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, was 15 when she was murdered in 2014. According to CBC, her death, which remains unsolved, "renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and inspired volunteer groups such as the Bear Clan Patrol to work at protecting vulnerable people on the streets. It also pushed the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to create the First Nations Family Advocate Office."

After these sobering stories, Zonta Club of Billings member Anna Schmitt shared a quote from Stacy Bohlen, CEO of the National Indian Health Board, who said, "If you are already invisible, how can you be missing?"

There are between 2.5 million and 6 million Indigenous people currently living in the United States, and yet many people remain uneducated about their current plight. Schmitt, who grew up in Colorado, shared that she did not even realize there were two Indian reservations in her home state until she studied abroad.

"It's hard to care about something you know nothing about, and that is why awareness is important," Schmitt said.

Jean Bearcrane, Montana Native Women's Coalition's executive director, then shared some history about Indigenous people in the U.S. and TakesHorse discussed tips for collaboration, including listening to and following the community, knowing the historical and cultural context, being mindful of others' time and energy, and more.

Two members from the Zonta Club of Billings then talked about two projects with which they have partnered with the Montana Native Women's Coalition: the Red Sand Project and the REDress Project.

According to its website, the Red Sand Project "uses sidewalk interventions and earthwork installations to create opportunities for people to question, connect and take action against vulnerabilities that can lead to human trafficking and exploitation."

The REDress Project "focuses around the issue of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada." The website says the project "has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us."

The Zonta club has also held MMIP Marches, including a virtual event last year. This year's event was postponed to May due to a resurgence of COVID-19 in the area. Schmitt said when planning such events, it is important to center native women and to allow people space and grace on how they might be affected.

"Understand that trust and time are held differently by many native and Indigenous people," she said. "There's often a richness in allowing things to unfold as they're supposed to."

Coppock closed the event with ways to help, including looking out for each other, reporting as soon as possible, sharing stories, joining in efforts when appropriate, publicizing the problem and raising awareness, and working with local government on legislation.

Watch a recording of the event.

12 OCTOBER 2021