Wellness Wednesday: Keeping Our Community Members Safe
by Rebekah Elkerton
On February 14th we saw large scale demonstrations drawing attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2Spirit+ (MMIWG2S+) epidemic. Valentines Day stands as the annual day of memorial, in which we honour and share our love for our lost community members. The numbers are alarming and so often Indigenous people are applauded for their resilience and while, yes, we are resilient - we desire to have peace. We’ve experienced continuous attempts to sabotage Indigenous identities and integrity to build a system that is set against us, devaluing our autonomy and disregarding our right to safety. Colonial structures have mastered systemic racism and violence by design, attempting to wipe out traditional practices and protocols that have protected Indigenous women.
As Indigenous people we have all felt the weight of the MMIWG2S+ epidemic. Whether we’ve known someone who has gone missing or been murdered, known someone who knows someone, or felt the anguish of knowing that if we or someone we care about went missing or was murdered that little would be done to find us and bring justice, the pain we carry about these losses creeps in. Over time I have learned to swallow this pain- knowing that if I truly allowed myself to feel it fully whenever it came up I might not be able to articulate myself in the way I am expected to in order to be heard as rational and worthy of listening to. The pain we carry has been diminished into a norm represented through statistics and hashtags, consequently our emotions are put to the wayside to satisfy colonizer eyes.
We know that our women are the heart of our families. Our children are the beauty in our lives, and our 2Spriit community members bring such special knowledge and valued gifts to our people. We know love for our fellow community members and yet the pain we carry as a result of the violence inflicted on Indigenous people is often experienced in silence. Opening space to have conversations about our pain is the first step toward healing and creating new patterns of mutual care.
I have known violence in many forms, felt fear freeze me on the spot , and identified manipulation tactics after removing myself from a relationship. Yet more often than not, I didn’t speak about these experiences to my closest family members, knowing that they carried their own traumas that I didn’t want to trigger. In situations where I experienced harm inflicted by other Indigenous people, I feared sharing my stories with non-indigenous supports that were available to me, not wanting to feed discriminatory stereotypes that label Indigenous people as dangerous. At times it has been challenging to find Indigenous safety resources in my area- whether it was a mental health professional, a program for healing, or an activity that inspired me to stand firmly in my truth and love myself. The barriers I have faced in accessing culturally appropriate services are not rare. Indigenous people have long known that our safety and healing often comes down to the supports available to us in our immediate circles.
Speaking to our loved ones about safety is important. It is necessary that we let them know we are here to listen, that their stories will not be received as a burden, that we are available to help them find safety, and we support them in their ongoing healing. When we educate community members about healthy relationships and communication, we empower one another to identify unhealthy and potentially harmful situations. As much as we don’t want to think about our loved ones experiencing violence, we must arm our children and youth with the knowledge, the words, and the safety of their support system, to identify and speak to unwanted experiences. Whether one's support system is one person or five people, the power of presence is transformative. Putting safety measures into place early on, like sharing our locations on our devices with trusted friends or family members or creating code words that signal discomfort or danger, can save lives. In doing so we not only have tangible resources for protecting one another but we build a circle of care in which loved ones know that we hold space for their experiences, and that their safety is important to us.
Acknowledging the complicated nature of harmful relationships, we know that it may take time for loved ones to leave dangerous dynamics, however it is important that we stay ready for when they are ready. I recently had a conversation with another Indigenous woman who was coming out of a dark experience and shared her pain with me, and as I listened, I realized that I didn’t have all of the answers. We are often taught to listen with the purpose of finding and offering solutions. However, listening in itself is a powerful tool- that reminds the speaker that their voice is valuable and their stories are valid.
Outside of personal relationships, the level of stranger danger Indigenous women, girls, and 2S people experience is a consistent threat to our safety. This is directly linked to damaging representations of Indigenous people in mainstream media and conversations. These images commonly deem our safety as unimportant and our humanity as nonexistent. Collectively there is an opportunity to change the narrative about Indigenous women. Indigenous people and allies alike must amplify Indigenous voices, promote our humanity, and speak to their network about the important issues we face. When we share the work of Indigenous people who are thriving and the stories of uniquely indigenous realities, we’re able to influence how others see us. This task requires the help of allies to reach an extended network of those who would not normally engage positively with Indigeneity.
There is still so much work to be done to understand the extent of the harm inflicted on Indigenous women, girls, and 2S people. One thing that is not difficult to understand is that Indigenous people have a right to safety. Our bodies are our own, our stories are important, and our lives should be filled with beauty, light, and health in all forms. When we leave the door open for community members to have somewhere to share their stories, receive support in leaving dangerous situations, and seek healing from their experiences, we honour our traditional nature to protect and care for one another. In a world where we are constantly reminded that we are unsafe it is important that we come together to uplift each other and instill hope in our women, girls, and 2S people.
Cover image by Karsten Winegeart