Meeting under the theme “Am I My Sister’s Keeper? Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) held its annual Vine Deloria Jr. Theological Symposium Nov. 15-16. The symposium is named in honor of the theologian, activist for Native American rights, and alumnus of Augustana Seminary (a predecessor school of LSTC).
Over the last two decades, Indigenous leaders, organizations and families have worked to shine a light on the ongoing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) epidemic and on the thousands of native women who are missing or have been killed in North America. Today the movement is growing, not only to bring awareness to the issue but also to create change in government and law enforcement systems. MMIWG activists seek to bring justice for Indigenous women and to prevent more from being stolen. The symposium presented lectures, panels, sermons and learning lunches on the topic, asking how the church might support the movement’s efforts.
The symposium began with a conversation between Vance Blackfox, ELCA director for Indigenous ministries and tribal relations, and Portia Skenandore-Wheelock, manager of the Native American Advocacy Program for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Skenandore-Wheelock, who was born and raised on the Oneida Indian reservation in Wisconsin, spent her formative years visiting tribal nations across the country. “I always knew where I came from,” she said.
“Getting back to our humanity is one of the most fundamental things we can do.”
Skenandore-Wheelock said she has always seen how the federal government’s decisions have affected daily life for her, her family and her Native community. She came to understand that her calling was to learn the languages of law and policy and serve as a delegate and interpreter for Native people.
The MMWIG crisis has multiple, layered causes, she explained, including the history of how Native people have been treated; the opportunity non-Native men see to do “whatever they want” on tribal lands without consequences; and a lack of accountability, as half of MMIW cases aren’t prosecuted. As such, Skenandore-Wheelock believes the crisis must also have a multilayered solution: it must be addressed at every level, from national legislation down to faith communities and families across the country.
Skenandore-Wheelock recommended that church members who want to support the movement should call or write to their congressional representatives about issues affecting Native people, especially Indigenous women. Specifically, she encouraged support of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act Program. Native people might not seem “statistically significant” to politicians, Skenandore-Wheelock said, “but that’s where allies come in.”
More generally, she encouraged non-Native people to educate themselves about Native issues, to volunteer and to honor the shared humanity of all people. “Getting back to our humanity is one of the most fundamental things we can do,” she said.
The Nov. 16 learning lunch featured Pamela Fencer-Smith, whose niece Aubrey Dameron of Grove, Okla., went missing three years ago. Since then, Fencer-Smith has advocated for others who need help finding their loved ones or who seek justice for their murdered relative in Indian country.
Frustrated with what they believe is not a serious investigation by authorities, Fencer-Smith and her brother Christian Fencer have organized volunteer search teams to investigate Dameron’s disappearance. “It’s tough going back over the things we’ve had to endure, the injustice,” said Fencer-Smith, who previously worked in law enforcement.
Police didn’t initially believe that Dameron was missing and used incorrect pronouns when referring to her, Fencer-Smith said. She believes they didn’t want to help because Dameron was Native, transgender and two-spirit (a person who identifies as having both a masculine and feminine spirit). She considers Dameron’s disappearance a hate crime.
When Fencer-Smith and her brother helped create a local group that focuses on MMIWG, they learned that many families in search of missing relatives have had similar experiences with law enforcement. “It’ so frustrating to know that we’re not the only family that this has happened to,” she said. Jurisdictional issues often complicate such cases when they occur on federal Indian reservations. The FBI is still working Dameron’s case.
“We can never lose a sense of hope and healing.”
Fencer-Smith said congregations can get involved through MMIWG advocacy organizations and by using their social media and platforms to bring attention to the issue.
The symposium closed with a panel discussion between Blackfox and three MMIWG activists—Cherrah Giles, former chair of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center; Roxanne White, executive director and founder of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women, People and Families; and Leanne Guy, founding executive director of the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition, Arizona’s tribal domestic and sexual violence coalition.
All three spoke about how the MMIWG crisis has shaped their lives, professionally and personally. Each had loved ones who were murdered or went missing, and some were also survivors of abuse and trafficking. It can be exhausting to continually explain the experience to those who do not live with the reality of this crisis every day, the panel said. “We’ve been on this road for such a long time,” Guy said. Still, the panelists expressed appreciation for events like the symposium, where Native and non-Native people can come together, engage in difficult conversations and learn.
White encouraged attendees to ask themselves how they can be not just an ally to Native people but “a co-conspirator.” “If we’re having an event—a vigil, a prayer walk, a search—come out,” she said. “And if you can’t come, donate.” The panelists also advised church members to trust that Native people understand the needs of their communities best, and to listen to their voices and respect their leadership.
Though progress toward ending the MMIWG crisis has been slow, the panelists said they see change beginning to happen. “We can never lose a sense of hope and healing,” Guy said.