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Runner stories

Running for missing and murdered Indigenous women

Rosalie Fisher with a red handprint on her face

Faith E. Briggs, co-director of the “Who is a Runner” series, shares an essay about Native runner Rosalie Fish and argues that we can all do better in advocating for social justice.

R unning has been one of my greatest teachers and longest relationships. Much of this is due to the incredible people I have met who are using running, the movement of their bodies, as a movement.

In “Who is a Runner,” a collaboration between Camp4 Collective and Brooks, we highlight voices advocating for social justice through running.

As soon as we began to think about this series, we knew we wanted to amplify Rosalie Fish’s activism in the face of the astounding statistics and lived reality of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls & Two-Spirit People epidemic (MMIW or MMIWG2S). The quiet power of Rosalie is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and we are honored that she is the subject of our second film in the “Who is a Runner” series.

Close up of Roslaie Fisher with a red handprint over her mouth

MMIW is a widespread epidemic. Four in five Native women will experience violence, often sexual, in their lifetime. These types of overwhelming and negative numbers are often called deficit statistics. As an African American woman, I understand what it’s like to grow up in a life contextualized by deficit statistics.

For young Native women like Rosalie, this means seeing friends and family members go missing. It means having little faith that law enforcement can or will do anything to keep you safe. It means feeling unsafe every day of your life.

I believe living in the shadow of these looming statistics deeply impacts the self-esteem of individuals and positivity in communities. How do you quantify the way the world steals away confidence before it is even allowed to bloom in young people? How can you fully dream about what is possible for you and your loved ones when you live with statistics like this and see their evidence in your community?

Rosalie fights to thrive in the face of these deficit statistics every day. She is running at a Division 1 school, getting a college education, and has moved home to be nearer to family to help with babysitting and daily support. Her work to stay safe and happy, to pursue her dreams, and showcase her talent shouldn’t be an exception. A young Native woman should not have to be exceptional to be confident in who she is and proud of where she comes from.

four women smiling

Unfortunately, we live in a society where people from historically marginalized communities — whether they are Native, BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQIA+, religious minorities, and many others — are under immense pressure to be exceptional. And the success of one such individual is often argued as proof that we do not live in unjust systems.

The reality is that we do live under unjust systems. It is our legal system, built within ongoing racism and historical colonialism that created the MMIW epidemic.

The reasons for the MMIW epidemic are deeply rooted. Main causes are racism, the hyper sexualization of Native women, and the proximity to violence and subsequent lack of justice for Native women. We made this film because we believe that awareness about the crisis is low.

In writing this accompanying piece, my hope is that by understanding the underlying causes, we as co-conspirators standing in solidarity can address the causes and overcome the MMIW epidemic. The loss of life and the impact on communities is heartbreaking. But one of the saddest aspects of this problem? It’s preventable.

Rosalie making the handprint on her face
Rosalie painting her hand red
Rosalie running

Racism

Unsurprisingly, racism is one of the biggest causes of MMIW. Settlers to what is now the United States felt superior to the people they found here when they immigrated. Despite many narratives of how Indigenous tribes helped early settlers survive, these colonizers felt they had a right to the land that they “discovered.” 

Racism has been a part of fabric of Native life since the arrival of these colonizers. War, broken treaties, violence, and lies have been used to maintain power over decimated Native populations to establish this country as we know it. This racism has reared its ugly head time and again to ensure that Native people did not have the ability to protect themselves.

The dehumanization of indigenous people is a part of the American imagination, and the movie “Pocahontas”is a prime example. In the film, one song chants, “Savages, savages, barely even human” and refers to the Native people as “filthy little heathens.”

Children in the United States grew up listening and singing along. The idea of being able to “tame” a “savage” is taught in “Pocahontas” and in other mainstream narratives about Native people created by non-Native storytellers. Those stories are still being watched and those songs are still being sung by American children today.

Rosalie running on the beach
Rosalie running on a track

This lens through which Native people are seen continuously impacts their sovereignty. Specific to MMIW, for example, laws were created so that sovereign Native Nations could not prosecute non-Native perpetrators.

Ironically, the curtailing of the legal rights of Native Nations was rooted in a fear that non-Christians would treat them unfairly. The irony is in the fact that the settlers had already done this to Native people.

In 1885 (The Major Crime Act), 1953 (Public Law 83-280), 1968 (The Indian Civil Rights Act), and 1978 (Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe), the federal government passed laws to continuously limit the legal power of Native Nations. While 90% of perpetrators of violence against Native women are non-Native, these sovereign nations have not been legally empowered by the U.S. government to protect their people. The laws are changing slowly.

Public opinion can help raise awareness of tribal rights. To ultimately keep more women and girls safe, we should advocate for state-level legislation that would make perpetrators face true legal consequences for their actions.

Hyper sexualization

The same feelings of cultural superiority, fueled by antiquated Protestant values, created a culture that hyper sexualizes Native women. “Pocahontas” is, once again, an unfortunate example. In the popular animated version, a 14-year-old girl is portrayed as a mature adult woman who chooses to fall in love with the “hero,” John Smith. The real history is quite different.

Yet, such film portrayals persist in American imagination and have even devolved into popular Halloween costumes. The fashion industry perpetuates such hyper-sexualization of Native women as well, featuring models scantily clad in “Native-inspired” lingerie and dramatic feathered headdresses. These stereotypical caricatures of the “sexy Native women” have real world impact to how Native women are seen and treated.

Rosalie running on trail
Rosalie running on a track

Accountability and man camps

One of the most dangerous situations for Native women is when temporary housing camps, usually for mostly male workers involved in extractive industries (the people and companies involved in removing oil, coal, metals, and other natural resources from the earth), are established alongside Native reservations.

These man camps have a fluid, transient population which is temporary and constantly cycling, making tracking and accountability difficult. Extractive industries are often alongside reservations, and tribes have been fighting against this proximity and the accompanying pollution for decades.

Moving forward

By advocating for the increased sovereignty of tribal nations, by refusing to participate in the hyper sexualization of Native women within American culture, and by speaking out against the dangerous man camps created by extractive industries, we can fight against MMIW.

At age 14, Rosalie had already witnessed violence and the disappearances of women in her own family. She uses her pain, her fear, and the strength she has found in her own body to keep moving forward without forgetting what’s behind her.

Close up of a painted red hand on Rosalie's face

Rosalie’s activism is for young women from Native communities. It is also for potential comrades, allies, and co-conspirators who will hear her message, hear these statistics, and stand up in solidarity to help.

It is our goal to amplify Rosalie’s important work and to offer clarity behind the reasons this crisis exists. We envision the same future as Rosalie and so many others, a world in which there is no MMIWG2S crisis.

Stand in solidarity with MMIW activists and Native leaders. Inform yourself and share awareness about the people and resources below.

Note: The following third-party links are not affiliated with Brooks:

Jordan Marie Daniel and Rising Hearts

Sovereign Bodies Institute

Adrienne Keene — Native American Cultural Appropriation

Matika Wilbur — Project 562

Adrienne and Matika’s “All My Relatives Podcast

Indigenous Women Hike

Native Women’s Wilderness

Indigenous Rising