U.S. launches national strategy to address missing and murdered Indigenous people — finally
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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.


RELATED: A photographer captured a track star's powerful MMIW statement. We all need to know what it means.

Attorney General William P. Barr recently announced the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Initiative during a visit to the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

"American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities," Barr said. "Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime. Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered. This important initiative will further strengthen the federal, state, and tribal law enforcement response to these continuing problems."

U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme, vice chair of the Attorney General's Native American Issues Subcommittee (NAIS), added, "The missing need to be found and brought home, murderers and abusers must be brought to justice, and violence against women must stop. With the Attorney General's leadership, this initiative will provide an improved, nationally coordinated response when a Native American goes missing."

According to the Justice Department website, the strategy has three parts:

- Establish MMIP coordinators: The Department of Justice is investing an initial $1.5 million to hire 11 MMIP coordinators in 11 states to serve with all U.S. Attorney's offices in those states, and others who request assistance. The states are Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, and Washington state. MMIP coordinators will work closely with federal, tribal, state and local agencies to develop common protocols and procedure for responding to reports of missing or murdered indigenous people. The first MMIP coordinator is already on board in Montana.

- Specialized FBI Rapid Deployment Teams: The strategy will bring needed tools and resources to law enforcement. Upon request by a tribal, state, or local law enforcement agency the FBI will provide expert assistance based upon the circumstances of a missing indigenous persons case. FBI resources and personnel which may be activated to assist with cases include: Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) teams, Cellular Analysis Support Teams, Evidence Response Teams, Cyber Agents for timely analysis of digital evidence/social media, Victim Services Division Response Teams, and others. MMIP coordinators will assist in developing protocols.

- Comprehensive Data Analysis: The department will perform in-depth analysis of federally supported databases and analyze data collection practices to identify opportunities to improve missing persons data and share the results of this analysis with our partners in this effort.

Advocates for MMIW have emphasized the importance of better data, as lack of data has made it difficult to seek justice. For example, according to a study by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), 5712 indigenous women went missing in 2016, but only 116 were logged by the Department of Justice's missing persons database.

RELATED: Native women are going missing at epic rates. A 19-year-old wants you to know why.

President Trump also signed an executive order creating an interagency task force, dubbed Operation Lady Justice, to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. He said in his remarks at the signing:

"It is my honor to sign an executive order — we're going to be doing it right now — to address a tragedy facing Native American communities: the crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, in particular women and children. It's a tremendous problem. It's been going on for a long time — many, many decades, beyond that. And we're going to address it. We've addressed it very strongly...

The statistics are sobering and heartbreaking. Recently, more than 5,000 Native American women and girls were reported missing in a single year. While the majority return home or are found, too many are still missing and their whereabouts are unknown — and they usually don't find them.

One study showed that Native American women in certain tribal communities are 10 times more likely to be murdered than the average American. The victims and their families deserve action. And this should have happened many years ago."

Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, said in a statement that the executive order was an "important first step."

"While there is so much that needs to be done to stop the violence perpetrated on Native women and girls, I appreciate the Administration for taking an important first step in establishing this Task Force," she said.

However, there are understandably some Native folks who are skeptical about how effective the government's strategy will be.

"I appreciate the effort being made and am glad they put money behind it," says Joye Braun, member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and Community Organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. "However, if they are truly serious they will look at the root causes of so many MMIP—those being racism and extractive industries like mancamps and oil booms."

You can't have it both ways," she adds. "I've witnessed loss of faith in a system that was inherently designed to suppress us as Indigenous sovereign nations. Most of these cases happen in geographical areas rife with racism. Until we face the root causes, inviting the FBI in is just adding layers of oppression. We need support for our own police and the ability to prosecute non-Natives in our judicial systems."

Indeed, the U.S. government's history with Indigenous people is littered with broken promises and disappointments, and there is far more work that needs to be done. But hopefully this "first step" will lead to greater understanding of the root causes of MMIP and help move the needle on this issue.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Wil Wheaton speaking to an audience at 2019 Wondercon.

In an era of debates over cancel culture and increased accountability for people with horrendous views and behaviors, the question of art vs. artist is a tricky one. When you find out an actor whose work you enjoy is blatantly racist and anti-semitic in real life, does that realization ruin every movie they've been a part of? What about an author who has expressed harmful opinions about a marginalized group? What about a smart, witty comedian who turns out to be a serial sexual assaulter? Where do you draw the line between a creator and their creation?

As someone with his feet in both worlds, actor Wil Wheaton weighed in on that question and offered a refreshingly reasonable perspective.

A reader who goes by @avinlander asked Wheaton on Tumblr:

"Question: I have more of an opinion question for you. When fans of things hear about misconduct happening on sets/behind-the-scenes are they allowed to still enjoy the thing? Or should it be boycotted completely? Example: I've been a major fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was a teenager and it was currently airing. I really nerded out on it and when I lost my Dad at age 16 'The Body' episode had me in such cathartic tears. Now we know about Joss Whedon. I haven't rewatched a single episode since his behavior came to light. As a fan, do I respectfully have to just box that away? Is it disrespectful of the actors that went through it to knowingly keep watching?"

And Wheaton offered this response, which he shared on Facebook:

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."