The Athens News: Visit to September Festival Unleashed 1000 Silent Stories

“They’re disposable,” the woman with the gray, curling hair says to me as a wooden drum beat steadily in the distance, the fire’s smoke rising high, “disposable people.”

Squinting in the afternoon sun, hands buried deep in pockets to escape the already-chilly September winds, I am not prepared for what this tribeswoman tells me.

“There’s a problem nationwide, we have to figure out how to help stop it. Every one of us has to help. Whether it be from verbal abuse, any type of domestic violence, physical, sexual abuse – it has to stop.”

I’m engrossed in conversation with this woman I met while exploring dream-catchers on sale at one of the myriad booths dotting the lakeside during the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival last September near Albany.

Fingering the feathers dressed delicately on the homemade wares, I come across a green-neon flier on the table. In boldface type, I read the title: “Murdered & Missing: Native American Women.”

I pick up the flier. My eyes dart across the page, as my mind falls silent. The numbers and statistics are deafening in their own type-text way.

25,560 Native-American Women are among the Murdered & Missing Persons in the U.S. since 1975.

Words fail me, fail to express how these stolen women’s stories have been essentially deleted from history.

Only 50 percent of the cases involving murdered Native-American Women have been solved.

“Can you tell me more about this cause?” I ask the table’s owner, Katie “Sunflower” Morris.

Her face turns grave as she recognizes the flier in my hand. I’m in for a tale as dreary and ominous as the bright-green sign conveys.

Morris explains to me how her tribe, the people of the East of the River Shawnee, are relaying this message of unspeakable truth: An unprecedented number of Native-American women every year are captured, abused and often murdered, with no closure or compensation offered by the federal government.

“We’re working on the awareness portion,” Morris said, “because once you can establish awareness, then you can get momentum where more things can start to be changed.”

The issue of domestic abuse is a controversial subject in the United States today. NFL running-back Ray Rice is just the scapegoat in a colossal societal dilemma that’s escalating rapidly here in America.

TMZ, an aggressive gossip-guerilla, earlier this year released a video that revealed Rice assaulting his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator. The NFL star initially only received a two-game suspension when footage from the same video first leaked. Now, the public’s gut-wrenching reactions to this latest video are making the situation a bit more complicated.

Domestic violence is an issue that’s commonly associated with criminal justice, finding protection for the victim, and exposing the perpetrator. Unfortunately, justice cannot always be obtained in situations such as these, especially if the cases of abuse or murder remain undocumented.

The United States government has not provided much assistance when it comes to documenting, seeking and ultimately finding the Native-American women who are so often missing or murdered.

According to the data compiled by the East of the River Shawnee Tribe, Native-American women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average, while Native women are twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence than any other race.

“Native women are so much more likely to be in a domestic violence relationship, to be raped, to be murdered – the stats are just so disproportionate to European ancestry, African-Americans, Asians, anything,” Morris continued. “Sometimes, I don’t like the fact that it gets broken up into racial barriers and divides, but that’s the reality of it.”

As if those words hadn’t sobered me enough, Morris turned and introduced me to another elder in the group, Disawin Ballard. Ballard, more of an “awareness expert,” calls me back to sit behind the canvas.

Smoke unfurls from traditional pipes, and a wood-burning fire crackles nearby to the soft beat of a drum. The smell of incense and tobacco clings to my hair and face; I listen attentively to this woman before me, whose eyes shine with great remorse and, yet still, hope.

She tells me of how the movement got started in her tribe. “This awareness started coming to some of us around Christmastime,” she says, “and then we started digging and searching and trying to find statistics. We tried to find numbers.”

Ballard echoes a similar statement I heard while conversing with Katie “Sunflower.” “But when it comes to the Native-American group, [those] statistics and numbers are almost nonexistent. Some things are lumped into one: ‘Oh, there’s ‘x’ number of women missing.’ ‘There’s ‘x’ number of women who were murdered whose cases haven’t been solved.’ When you do finally find some statistics, sadly, most of that information comes from Canada, and they are light years ahead of us in this.”

As Ballard transitions into the seemingly-absent support from the U.S. government on this issue, her voice becomes even more impassioned.

“‘Oh, they’re only an Indian.’ ‘Oh, they must be prostitutes.’ ‘Oh, they must be wound up in drugs.’ ‘Yeah, we’ll investigate, kinda,'” she speaks of the way authorities will often disregard the cases of the Native-American missing and murdered women.

“Kinda. My mother, my sister, my daughter, my aunt is not just ‘kinda,'” Ballard continues. “There are a lot of misconceptions in this country, in the United States, about people of all different groups. Educate yourself, find the information, and become aware. Once you become aware, then you can take responsibility and do something.”

The afternoon sun chills her last words into icy-cold veracity.

“I don’t want you to be next,” she says to me in earnest. “I don’t want her to be next,” she gestures toward a customer browsing the wares, a female Asian. Last, her eyes fall upon an obvious relative, a young girl, with whom she shows much fondness. “And I sure don’t want her to be next.”

Tears sting at the back of my eyes.

“We have to stop it.”

This story also appears on The Athens News