Last month, women, queer and non binary folks, and allies across the state gathered in Charleston to rally for electoral justice in honor of civil rights activist, Septima Clark. Representing indigenous women was a contingent from the newly-formed Indigenous Women’s Alliance of South Carolina, including Kathleen Hays and Terence Lilly Little Water. Here, they’ve graciously taken the time to answer a few questions about their most pressing issue, their goals, and their needs – allies take notice.
Tell us about the Indigenous Women’s Alliance of South Carolina.
The Indigenous Women’s Alliance of South Carolina is a sub-committee under the South Carolina Indian Affairs Commission, a non-profit organization. While the Commission focuses on unity among Native Americans, the Alliance focuses on serving Indigenous women in or from South Carolina (Indigenous meaning the original inhabitants of any colonized country, not just the United States). The Alliance is actually very young and in a sense the women’s march was our first public event. The ultimate goal is to support Indigenous women however that may look; it looks like bringing attention to issues such as domestic violence and inadequate access to justice, but it also includes trying to develop an inter-tribal community, celebrating our shared and different traditions and heritages, and promoting skills such as advocacy, healthy living, and leadership.
Our primary goal is to enable South Carolina’s tribes and intertribal (Native Americans living in South Carolina from other tribes) citizens to be heard. They are the lost voices in the political process, slipping through the cracks when it comes to any legislation that may affect them or institutions that may service them.
What are some of the challenges or struggles that face Native American women?
A lot of issues facing Native American women are faced by the same issues as women from other marginalized groups. Inspiring women to get out and vote is a needed conversation in Charleston, South Carolina, but everyone is invariably shocked when they hear about the murder rates that Native women on reservations suffer.
A unique challenge for Native American women is the epidemic of them going missing and being murdered. Not so far away, in Harnett County, North Carolina (where the Coharie tribe is) the murder rate for Indigenous women is nearly 18 times the national average. Furthermore, according to police reports, upstate South Carolina is a hotspot for missing and murdered Indigenous women. As well as that, Charleston County is in the top five counties for human trafficking, leaving many tribes in South Carolina vulnerable.
What were your hopes in participating in last month’s women’s rally? Any fears?
The Alliance was given an opportunity to speak at the women’s march, so I chose to speak about the missing and murder rates. I hadn’t spoken to a crowd nearly that large before, so I was nervous about it. Given the subject matter, the shocked and silent reaction from the crowd was actually encouraging. My only fear is that people will forget and the momentum will not continue.
The issue of Missing and Murdered Women is paramount, but we do want to empower more Indigenous Women to take leadership roles in the community. At the very least, by witnessing Native Women speaking about our issues, perhaps the general population will begin to see us as living entities as opposed to museum pieces or caricatures.
Do you see the women’s movement that’s organizing in the wake of this new presidency and the #metoo moment as representing Native women?
There are places where the women’s movement is clearly lacking. Native American women have the highest sexual assault and homicide rates among ethnic groups in the US, yet we are rarely asked to participate in any arena that addresses it. A friend of mine who grew up on the Navajo Reservation relayed her experience where Native communities depend on everyone, including the abusers. One of the problems that all abused women face is the perception that they don’t have the opportunity or resources to escape. With communities as impoverished and isolated as Native ones, that perception can be more true for Native women.
To make Native women feel like we are a part of the women’s movement, I think the first step would be to remember that we are here. At the women’s march, several people who approached our table said they weren’t even aware that there were tribes in South Carolina. If you aren’t aware of the presence of women different than you, how could you be aware of their struggles? It’s kinda hard for me to listen to people preach about the importance of registering to vote when so many of my sisters are disappearing. It feels like we have much bigger priorities.
What can allies do to support Indigenous women in South Carolina?
It’s sad that this has to be said, but an ally to Native Americans is someone who supports what the Native community already wants and needs, not someone who infiltrates and tells us what we should want and need – that’s just another colonization. An ally will support our goals and vision without trying to change who we are, or commandeer/misinterpret our traditions. The Native community is so small, so historically disadvantaged, and so overlooked that the energy of a social media campaign or hashtag would be a phenomenal improvement over the attention we currently get. For example, I would guess more people in South Carolina know about the violence against Native women than possibly ever before.
Below, you can read the Indigenous Women’s Alliance of South Carolina’s speech at the Charleston Rally for Electoral Justice.
Koo-ha-ah-hut. That is a greeting in my tribe’s original language and it means simply, are you good? My name is Kathleen Hays and I am a daughter, a sister, and a wife. I have the honor of representing the Indigenous Women’s Alliance of SC, but I am so humbled and inspired by being here in solidarity with such a powerful group of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and our allies. Thank you South Carolina Women’s March, for allowing us this opportunity.
This gathering is a message to those in power as well as those among us that the participation of women in the political process is valuable, if not essential. My tribe, the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, as well as many other Indigenous peoples in North America, have a heritage distinct from our European neighbors in that women have traditionally carried the mantles of familial and societal leadership. But, as we all acknowledge by gathering here, our current environment doesn’t remember that particular tradition, a tradition rooted in this land and its varied peoples. The value of women’s involvement in public leadership has been questioned and resisted since this land was colonized and what we protest today ultimately is an attack on our worth.
The worth of women is a very personal issue for me and I am wearing red today because it draws from the shadows a lurking threat specific to Indigenous women in North America. In August of last year, a young Native American woman in South Dakota, named Savanna, was a nursing assistant, a college student, and a mother-to-be a few weeks from her child’s due datei . One day, Savanna left the apartment she shared with family to help a neighbor, and was never heard from again. Savanna’s child was found alive 5 days later, but it took a few more days to find Savanna’s body in a nearby river. It is difficult to imagine a more disturbing tragedy than Savanna’s, but going missing and being murdered was a burden she always carried through her Native American heritage.
In 2008, the US Department of Justice funded a reportii that found that Native American reservations can mourn murder rates for their women worse than total murder rates in countries warring against drug cartelsiii. For some of our Indigenous sisters, it is dramatically worse. Our neighbors in Harnett County, NC, home of the Coharie tribe, have a murder rate for Indigenous women nearly 18 times the national averageiv. And as unbelievable as this may sound, Bon Homme County, SD, where the Yankton Souix tribe can be found, has a murder rate among Indigenous women 111 times the United States’ average ratev . If the same murder rate the Yankton Souix women bear were applied to all women in Charleston, every year the harbor and rivers would return the bodies of nearly 400 stolen mothers, daughters, sisters, and wivesvi .
This is a resounding judgment that Indigenous women are not valued by the violent, nor those who have a duty to protect us from violence. Native American women, and all women in the United States, are not attributed the value we deserve. This is not an indicator of our worth! By our coming together, forming this community, and supporting each other, those in power will come to know the value and worth of their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, and their wives.
In closing, I’d like to share wisdom originating from an elder of the Sioux people: “The honor of the people lies in the moccasin tracks of the woman. Be strong with the warm, strong heart of the earth, my daughter. No people goes down until their women are weak and dishonored or dead upon the ground. Be strong and sing the strength of the Great Powers within you, all around you.” Thank you.
i Retrieved from https://everipedia.org/wiki/savanna-lafontaine-greywind/
ii Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and the Criminal Justice Response: What is Known, Bachman et. al., 2008
iii 4.88 murders for every 100,000 people. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate
iv 89 murders for every 100,000 indigenous women. Id.
v 555 murders for every 100,000 indigenous women. Violence Against Women, at pg. 26; c.f. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate
vi Id.; c.f. data from the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (retrieved from https://www.bia.gov/regionaloffices/great-plains/south-dakota/yankton-agency) and the United States Census Bureau (retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/charlestoncitysouthcarolina/PST045216). A ratio of the murder rate of 555 out of 100,000 women (.00555) was applied to half the population of Charleston in 2016 (134,385 / 2 = 67,192).