We cannot stay silent: Qualla Boundary organizers hope momentum from 3rd annual MMIW march will continue
A local advocacy group is raising awareness about the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Western North Carolina. Over 200 people turned out for the Qualla Boundary MMIW Committee’s third annual awareness walk on Saturday.
The crowd of supporters for the march met along the Oconaluftee River. Twenty-three members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee who were killed or are still missing were remembered and mourned.
Keawe Bone opened the event with an honor song. It was given to him by a family member.
“He sung this song for family members who have passed on. It always just brings me to a place of remembrance with them. And it’s about them dancing where the edge of the world meetings the sky. May they dance forever,” said Bone.
Organizer Mary Crowe welcomed the families who came to the march to honor their daughters, mothers and friends who have been killed.
“These grandmothers are raising their daughter’s children,” said Crowe.
The microphone was then opened up for the crowd. Families came up to share their stories:
“These are my three grandchildren that I’m raising. My daughter was killed. My granddaughter was also killed she was only four,” said Myra Calhoun.
“My granddaughter Lively Crue Colindres was murdered in February of this year. She was only 8 months old. She was just beginning to crawl. Now we will never have that,” said Rhonda Colindres.
“My cousin, Benita Jumper. We have a shelter down here for here. Her mother is here today,” said Crowe.
“My daughter was Benita Jumper. She was beaten with a hammer and cane. A few days later she died because I had to unhook her from the machine,” said Mary Evans.
Loretta Bolden is the founder of the committee. She shared her own story of domestic violence. She says her first husband knocked her out after she told him to make his own dinner plate.
“The next thing I know, I’m waking up. The front door was wide open. I remember it being about 6pm when it started and when I came to it was about 5 o’clock in the morning and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have got to get to work.’ And my workplace wouldn’t let me work because my face was so messed up,” said Bolden.
Danielle Brady’s mother and daughter also shared her story. They said they found out she was pregnant after she was killed.
There were 506 cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women counted by the Urban Indian Health Institute in 2018. However, the agency says that because of poor data collection this is probably an under-count.
MMIW NC conducted its own research analyzing the 106 murdered and missing cases in the state over the last 60 years. The organization found that 57 percent of those missing were women and girls. From that data, 33 percent were from Robeson County (where the Lumbee Tribe is primarily located) and 14 percent were members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
Crowe thinks of the Gabby Petito case in 2022 as a key example of the disparity between white people who go missing and others.
“You know we had a young Caucasian lady who went missing just maybe a couple of months back and the whole world was looking for her. That’s all our families want,” said Crowe.
For Karyl Frankiewicz, another well-known case springs to mind as an example of an Indigenous woman who waited a long time for justice.
Faith Hedgepeth was a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribal community. She was killed nine years ago while attending at UNC Chapel. Authorities just arrested her suspected killer in 2021.
Frankiewicz, currently Ms. Regal Elegance North Carolina, says chance for her friend's case to be closed was a relief.
“It’s difficult when you find one of your sisters gone missing. You usually do have to speak up because if you don’t, who will? I’m glad the family was finally able to get closure,” said Frankiewicz.
Crowe says there is a need for national awareness of the real numbers of Indigenous people being killed.
“We can put the names of our relatives here on the back of one shirt. Some nations and people have rolls and rolls of names of families, of sisters and relatives that have been murdered and missing,” said Crowe.
Improving data practices for law enforcement and federal departments is just one of many policy and political changes called for at the event.
Changes that Principal Chief Richard Sneed says will help bring justice.
The Eastern Band is one of just the few tribes in the country that has some jurisdiction to prosecute nontribal members. But there are limitations. Sneed says that tribal courts can only sentence offenders to one year of incarceration.
“People who are predators, men who are predators – they know that and they prey on native women and native communities. So we are here to raise a voice to say it stops today,” said Sneed.
The right to prosecute nontribal members for crimes on tribal land as well as federal funding is part of the Violence Against Women Act which is reauthorized by congress about every five years. It was just renewed and expanded that jurisdiction to include stalking and sexual violence. The legislation allowing tribes to prosecute domestic violence cases was added in 2013.
Sneed dug into the links between domestic violence and substance abuse and the high number of murders.
“The domestic violence issues are almost without fail tied to substance use disorder, be that alcohol, narcotics or whatever. So as a nation – and I don’t mean the Eastern Band as a nation – until we come to terms with this epidemic that has plagued us for [years] now until we come to terms with that - come to grips with that - I think we will continue to see domestic violence because it is a natural biproduct of substance use disorder and addiction,” said Sneed.
Sneed says the Eastern Band puts a lot of funding toward fighting against substance abuse but that more needs to be done on all levels.
“Prevention really is the key because as we have seen here and also how the federal and state governments do it as well we are really putting band aids on gaping wounds because we are dealing with things after the fact. We have to help people be able to live healthy, drug-free lives if we are going to deal with domestic violence – and education is a big part of that,” said Sneed.
Marsha Jackson is a member of the Eastern Band and runs the Ernestine Walkingstick Domestic Violence Shelter on the Qualla Boundary.
“We talk about missing and murdered. We don’t talk about the sexual assault and the trauma that those women have endured. We don’t talk about those things that they have suffered. That’s the part that we have to speak about too. We have to speak about that too. We can’t be silent anymore,” said Jackson.
Jackson noted the number of LGBTQ+ two-spirit community and men who are killed are also under counted.
“There is lack of media coverage for Indigenous women. There is misclassification of the people who have passed away. These women are my sisters because they are fallen warriors. We are the fire keepers for our people and we are here today to bring that fire back,” said Jackson.
The crowd chanted the names of all 23 members of the Eastern Band who were honored during the march along the road to the council house.
Red dresses - a symbol of the movement – and traditional ribbon skits hung alongside the names of the women and children.
The march finished with a chant of, “No More Stolen Sisters!”
Then group gathered at the tribal council house to pray for community leaders to make policy changes and protect the tribe.
“All the men holler back, let’s go!”
The men ended the event with a hollered commitment to protect their community.
Bone explains the meaning of the traditional holler.
“It is expressed as a call to arms, a call for help and a call of assurance saying, ‘I am going to start something. Do you have my back?’ and that is why we got all of the men there to respond in kind when T.W. Saunooke set out the [call] and responded in kind and gave him assurance that we were all going to be standing up as men in our community,” said Bone.
Sheyahshe Littledave says she was glad to see the turnout at the event. Littledave is one of the hosts of the We Are Resilient podcast which highlights the stories of those who have been killed or are still missing.
“There has been a lot of momentum in the last few years, so it was great to see how many people showed up ready to walk and ready to do something about this issue,” said Littledave.
A member of the Eastern Band, Littledave is also a domestic violence survivor.
Littledave explained that murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women so this is a national issue. At the event, she also spoke about her cousin Brittney Littledave who is currently missing. She was last seen 7 months ago in California.
“Regardless of what their past was, everybody deserves the opportunity for people to be looking for them,” said Littledave.
Another attendee who highlighted the connection between the personal and political was Wendy Nevarez. A Republican, Nevarez is running for Congress in NC-11 district against current Congressman Madison Cawthorn. She says she supports the Violence Against Women’s Act one hundred percent.
“[I'm] beyond disappointed that Madison Cawthorn voted against that. We have to protect our most vulnerable and typically that is teenagers and girls that go missing. And make sure that our indigenous population thrives and grows,” said Nevarez.
Nevarez says her father was adopted in 1948 and that she found out just a few years ago that he was a descendent of Eastern Band tribal members. She says she a Cherokee descendant and that she also experienced domestic violence.
Here’s the full list of people who were honored on Saturday:
Jacqueline Davis, Hermie Elizabeth Sequoyah Queen, Ollie Cucumber Hornbuckle, Bethna Sue Bradley McCoy, Stacy Bigwitch, Mary Catherine Haymond, Patricia Louise Mount, Martha Joyce Driver Teesateskie, Banita Jumper Gregory, Carol Deanah McCoy, Lucy Wildcat, Lucinda Littlejohn, Tamara Seay, Marie Walkingstick Pheasant, Eva Blythe Blevins, Danielle Brady, Gina Younce, Malinda Catolster, Cheyenne Toineeta, Maggie Bowman, Jessica Calhoun, Ahyoka Calhoun, and Lively Crue Colindres.