Mar 2, 2014 - Honoring Loretta Saunders by Annita Lucchesi
As news of Inuk student Loretta Saunders’ death sends waves of grief through indigenous communities across Canada and the US, I have been reflecting on her story and how best to honor her, or do justice to the violence she experienced and was fighting against. Many have remarked on the disturbing fact that Loretta Saunders was doing her academic work on the very same violence that would take her life, yet what is perhaps most disturbing to me about Loretta Saunders’ story is that she is not alone—it is not uncommon for women outspoken on these issues to not only be survivors, but, like Loretta, to go on to experience violence as well.
A large fraction of the people that are active in the movement to end violence against indigenous women and support survivors of violence are survivors themselves, or have relatives who are victims. These are women that have been battered, abused, violated, traumatized and re-traumatized, and they go through with the work because they are driven by the conviction that none of their sisters deserve to go through that too. They soldier through triggering materials and situations, they courageously provide knowledge and testimony, they bring their work home and their home to work (oftentimes caring for children at the same time), they hold people accountable in their communities even when it’s unsafe (from the mother who beat a would-be child rapist with a baseball bat, to the women who drove a man through the entire reservation while honking and yelling to everyone that he’s a rapist), they spend countless late nights working at the kitchen table, they learn the law like the back of their hand, they open up their homes and their lives to sisters who need support in escaping or healing from violence, they make incredible use of thin dollars and resources to do grassroots work in communities from Iqaluit to Nogales, they deal with the exhaustion and frustration and hurt and pain and grief that comes with this work, they have built and maintain networks of support and sisterhood that span colonial national boundaries and thousands of indigenous communities, and they put their minds, hearts, and souls into one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring assertions of love and solidarity that I have ever seen.
I cried after reading Professor Darryl Leroux’s article on Loretta. Though I never knew her, she struck me as someone I could have easily been friends with, and indeed reminded me of friends of mine. In some senses, the article struck home because she also reminded me of myself—I too am a young indigenous woman doing work on violence against Native women, who has had to come to a place of healing in bearing witness and pursuing justice. I have relatives and friends who are survivors of violence, and am a survivor myself. I can’t even tell you how many times I have been raped, and yet without giving much thought to it, I gave prayers of thanks that I am still alive, and have not experienced the kind of violence that took Loretta’s life; what kind of world do we live in, that a young woman like myself would say a prayer like that?
In mourning Loretta, I couldn’t help but think of Janett Reyna. Janett, the Ponca Nation’s domestic violence services director and a survivor of domestic violence herself, was murdered by the father of her children almost exactly six months ago. Loretta and Janett are not the first indigenous women to be a victim of the very violence they so passionately fought against, and they probably won’t be the last. Whether this speaks to the fact that woman survivors of violence are more likely to be re-exposed to violence in the future, or the pervasive and disappointing low interest of governmental agencies or the general public in actively protecting indigenous women on the ground, or the reality that this world is not a safe place to be an indigenous woman (much less one who stands against colonial misogynistic violence and power structures), I’ll leave up to you to decide.
I often think about our indigenous sisters who have gone missing, are being trafficked, who are in abusive relationships, or who have been murdered. Images of women in distress and in fear flash in my head…I imagine a young hitchhiker trapped in a car with strange men and fighting for her life, a woman standing in front of the bathroom mirror attempting to cover the fingerprint-shaped bruises on her neck with makeup, a girl smothered under the crushing force of the man raping her, and the fear and confusion the thousands of spirits of missing murdered women must be feeling as they wait for justice. That collective terror is enough to traumatize entire communities for generations to come, and it has no signs of stopping on its own.
Sarah Hunt, a Kwakwaka’wakw woman, wrote a deeply moving piece on honoring missing and murdered indigenous women that was published this last February 14; there is a line in it that has been haunting me since I read it, which reads—“we know that even one violent death is one too many.” I believe we do know this, and yet we are at over 860 documented cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada alone, and the violence rages on. We are losing relatives, bearers of our cultures, and leaders of our communities at an alarming rate and have been suffering these losses for quite some time. Who will be the next Janett or Loretta six months from now? How many do we have to lose before we collectively join Janett, Loretta, the women who sustain this movement, and for that matter, generations and generations of our ancestors, in demanding safety for indigenous women?
Annita Lucchesi is a Southern Cheyenne survivor of sexual and domestic violence. She is a graduate student in the Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies department at Washington State University, and also works at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which is dedicated to reclaiming the sovereignty of Native nations and safeguarding Native women and their children.