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For years, Native communities in the U.S. and Canada have been trying to raise awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Statistics show that Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at rates far higher than any other demographic, and the issue has only recently come into mainstream consciousness.

Canada launched an inquiry into MMIW in 2017, and released a historic report—in which the epidemic was called "genocide"—this past summer. Now, the U.S. is formally launching a federal task force and strategy of its own to address the issue—only broadening the scope to include all Native Americans, not just women.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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After a two-plus year inquiry, Canada has acknowledged that its epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women amounts to genocide.

In 2016, the Canadian government launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) to examine the disproportionate number of Indigenous women who have been killed or have disappeared in Canada. On June 3, 2019, The inquiry commissioners presented their final report—1,200 pages filled with stories and evidence showing that "persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause" of this epidemic.

Chief commissioner Marion Buller of the Mistawasis First Nation didn't mince words as she presented the findings to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"Despite their different circumstances and backgrounds, all of the missing and murdered are connected by economic, social and political marginalization, racism, and misogyny woven into the fabric of Canadian society," explained Buller. "The hard truth is that we live in a country whose laws and institutions perpetuate violations of fundamental rights, amounting to a genocide against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people."

Trudeau acknowledged the report's full findings at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver, B.C. the following day. "We recognized the need for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and we have commissioners who came back with findings of fact and with calls to action," he said. "We thank them for their work, we applaud their work, and we accept their findings—including that what happened amounts to genocide."

The report includes 231 Calls to Justice directed at governments at all levels, as well as institutions, organizations, and everyday Canadians. Commissioner Buller says these action calls are not mere recommendations, but "legal imperatives." How effectively and expediently those calls to justice are implemented remains to be seen.

While arguably a step in the right direction, the Inquiry has been beleaguered by disagreements about approaches and distrust from some Indigenous communities.

From its outset, the public inquiry faced challenges. One of the original five commissioners resigned over disagreements over how the inquiry would be conducted. Some Indigenous communities did not feel adequately represented by the commission, and some families complained that their calls to the commission to share their stories went unanswered. The Native Women's Association of Canada issued periodic report cards on which commitments of the commission were being met and which weren't, and each report card was a mixed bag.

Conducting an inquiry commissioned by a colonial government about a deeply painful indigenous reality was never going to be an easy task. The process opened wounds and recalled heinous historic oppression for many. At the same time, having an official record and recognition of the lived reality of Indigenous people is a historic step. It's what comes next that is the question.

"The report has been triggering for many, as have the reactions to it," says Alison Tedford, an Indigenous woman from the Kwakiutl nation who lives in B.C. "There are deep seated feelings that come with these truths and reactions will vary widely because of the diversity of experiences represented. It will take a great many voices to talk this through."

"What resonated for me was the witness concerns about the failure to implement existing recommendations," Tedford told Upworthy, "and how that represents a lack of political will for change. This history of inaction makes it difficult to hold hope that these calls to justice will be implemented either and that is an uncomfortable feeling to have as an Indigenous woman, that those who could contribute to a safer today and tomorrow for you and your family might choose not to, even as they acknowledge this is genocide. There has been an erosion of trust."

Other Indigenous women have expressed similar apprehension about the ultimate outcome of the Inquiry. Indigenous writer and teacher Andrea Landry wrote in a Chatelaine op-ed, "The fact that the recommendations made within the inquiry are not legally enforceable, nor legally binding, goes hand in hand with the reconciliation agenda of the government today; a facade with limited space for permanent social change for Indigenous peoples. It can also be seen as the government using the emotional labour of the families involved that will, in the end, maintain colonial supremacy and the continued exploitation of the land and the bodies of Indigenous women and 2SLGBTQQIA peoples."

The enormity of the report and the sweeping calls to justice speak to the vastness of the issue, as well as what it will take to make real movement forward.

"Our collective history and present reality of trauma is laid bare in this multitude of words," says Tedford. "It is noted there is a role for everyone. Oppression of this magnitude took an immense amount of collaboration and an equal force of sheer will and determination to make this a safe place at last will be needed to effect meaningful change, in my opinion."

"There are calls to justice not just to government agencies, health care providers, educators but also to everyday Canadians. There are ways each person can contribute to the safety and security of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLBGTQQIA people and that's empowering. Immediate, dramatic, paradigm shift—these words are used to describe the urgency and scale of required changes. It will be a challenge, and I hope Canada is up for it."

What does all of this mean for the U.S., which has a similar colonial history and a MMIW movement of its own?

Though Canada is by no means perfect, there's a lot the U.S. could learn from our northern neighbors when it comes to acknowledging Native communities and the impact colonialism has had—and continues to have—on Indigenous communities.

I was struck by how each session at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver began with an acknowledgment that we were meeting on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded lands of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and Squamish Nations people. Then I learned that such land acknowledgments are common in B.C. I've maybe seen that done once in the U.S., and only at a small event. Land acknowledgment is not a huge thing, but it's something. (There's a Native Land App you can use to see whose ancestral lands you're on at any given time.)

Indigenous voices in the U.S. have been speaking out about the MMIW epidemic in our country for years, and it's still unknown to many. We have had no national inquiry commissioned, and it's hard to imagine one coming during the current administration. However, there are a couple of legislative initiatives addressing MMIW that we as citizens can lean on our congressional representatives to support.

The first is Savanna's Act, a bill that bolsters the data tracking of missing and murdered Native Americans, standardizes law enforcement and justice protocols, and requires the Department of Justice to provide training and technical assistance to tribes and law enforcement to implement new protocols.

The second is the Not Invisible Act of 2019, which would increase intergovernmental coordination to identify and combat violent crime on native lands and against native peoples.



Further, we can follow grassroots initiatives like the Red Ribbon Alert Project, which offers an alert system for when a Native American woman goes missing, and perhaps most importantly, educate ourselves on issues Indigenous communities face and the role our institutions and governments play in those issues. We need to understand how the oil, gas, and other extraction industries affect human trafficking in Native American communities, for example.

Historically, our nation has much to atone for, but there are also immediate actions we can take to help eliminate an issue Indigenous women and girls are facing right here, right now.

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