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OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahomans recently learned that the state ranks tenth in the country for murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW) cases. Now, two of the sovereign Indian Nations within the state are acting to bring awareness to what Senator Jon Tester D-MT) has described as “an epidemic.” Billboards that strikingly convey the tragedy will debut this week near Tulsa and Oklahoma City, in El Reno and Ponca City.

“We both feel that this is a beautiful manifestation of our desire to shed light on this ugly problem,” said Councilwoman Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Nation, when commenting on the billboard campaign. Councilwoman Camp-Horinek’s daughter, Suzaatah Horinek, is the Ponca Nation’s Director and Coordinator for the Tribal Sexual Assault Support Program (TSAP).

The Ponca Nation is host to the upcoming Frontline Oil and Gas Conference, May 16-18. This Indigenous-led organizing summit is being held in the epicenter of Oklahoma’s extractive industry activity in Ponca City. “Man camps” that follow fossil-fuel operations have been described as “the nitroglycerin” for sex-trafficking that is central to the MMIW tragedy. The May 18 Frontline Oil and Gas Conference march will feature a 3 p.m. press conference at the MMIW billboard in Ponca City.

The billboard on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation is on I-40 West, near South Country Club Road in El Reno. Governor Reggie Wassana said he is committed to supporting this proactive initiative to raise awareness and make the MMIW tragedy impossible to ignore. Governor Wassana’s position reflects the findings of the 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute MMIW report, which indicated that the situation for Native women and girls in Oklahoma could be far graver due to underreporting and law enforcement administrative failures.

The national billboard campaign was initiated by the tribal alliance of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC), the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA), and the Global Indigenous Council (GIC). Sister tribes of the Oklahoma Indian Nations, the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Ponca Tribe of Nebraska are part of the tribal organizations.

The RMTLC-GPTCA-GIC alliance has been at the forefront of recent efforts to secure meaningful legislation to combat the MMIW epidemic. Three bills introduced this year by Senators Murkowski, Udall, Smith and Cortez-Masto incorporate recommendations made by the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA alliance. In February 2019, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), introduced the Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act. This legislative call for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to reports of missing and murdered Native Americans and recommend solutions based on their findings, originated with the RMTLC. In April 2019, Senator Tester and Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) committed to championing the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA amendments to Savanna’s Act and to fulfilling that commitment by securing the inclusion of those amendments in the final bill. The amendments are supported by an impressive, bipartisan array of lawmakers, including the bill’s original sponsor, former senator, Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and in the House, Congressmen Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), and Congresswomen Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Deb Haaland (D-NM).

Lynnette Grey Bull, Senior Vice President of Global Indigenous Council (GIC) and founder of Not Our Native Daughters, relates the billboard campaign to the movie, Wind River, that brought the MMIW crisis to the mainstream. “Disturbing as some of the scenes were, the movie would not have made the impact it did without them,” Grey Bull said, and explained that the billboards are to be seen in the same light. “In 15-years of conflict in Iraq the US suffered 4,541 fatalities. In 2016 alone, there were 5,712 reported MMIWG cases in the US. That should provide pause and context,” added Tom Rodgers, Executive Vice President of Global Indigenous Council.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), Co-sponsor of the Not Invisible Act.

“The initial imagery is stark for a reason. This can no longer be a silent crisis. The next wave of billboards leads with the headline, ‘Invisible No More,’” explained Rain Bear Stands Last, Executive Director of Global Indigenous Council, adding that this is just one part of the MMIW movement “being led by many in many different communities.” Oklahoma GOP Congressmen Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin have just introduced the Not Invisible Act (H.R. 2438) with Democratic Congresswomen Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids. “Every woman deserves to feel safe, but women in Native communities are going missing without a trace,” stated Rep. Haaland.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas)

The Not Invisible Act is the first bill in history to be introduced by four Native Americans and seeks to establish a BIA-supported advisory committee on violent crime committed against tribal members.

“The silent crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women is wreaking havoc on our families and our communities. All parties have to work together to raise awareness and find the most effective ways to fight this epidemic,” said Congressman Mullin.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), Co-sponsor of the Not Invisible Act.

“If you have a pulse, MMIW impacts you. You took form in the womb. You were nurtured surrounded by sacred water. You were born of a life-giver, a woman, and that woman was once a girl. Violence does not discriminate, and neither should our laws,” added Bear Stands Last.

“The amount of violence that Native Americans and Alaska Natives face in their communities, especially women, frankly would not be tolerated anywhere else in America. The advisory committee established by the Not Invisible Act of 2019 would give federal officers a better glimpse of the tragic epidemic of violence in Indian Country and facilitate the development of strategies tribal leaders and federal law enforcement can implement to more effectively confront this problem,” said Congressman Cole, Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

Conceptualized for the GPTCA-RMTLC-GIC alliance by Alter-Native Media, the MMIW billboard campaign has been independently funded by non-profit groups, including Nation Unsevered, a Beltway-based organization committed to supporting tribal self-determination.

Photos courtesy of Alter-Native Media.


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