Political Matters – October 2021

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By Mordecai Specktor

Missing white woman syndrome
In September, I tried to avoid new coverage about the disappearance of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman who went missing during a cross-country trip with her boyfriend. Mainstream news went all in on the story, so it wasn’t easy trying to ignore the press reports.

Sadly, a Wyoming coroner confirmed, on Sept. 21, that human remains found two days earlier in the Bridger-Teton National Forest were those of Petito. The county coroner declared her death to be a homicide.

The national press fixation on the Petito case has spurred many to speak out on the disproportionate coverage, specifically in the face of scant coverage of murdered and missing Native women and girls.

In Wyoming where Petito’s remains were found, numerous cases of missing and murdered Native women have gone unsolved.

In Riverton, Wyoming, Tianna Wagon, 24, followed press coverage of the Petito case. In Jan. 2019, one of her sisters, Jocelyn Watt, 30, was murdered at her home in Riverton along with a companion, according to NBC News.

“A year later, another sister, Jade Wagon, 23, was reported missing and later found dead on the Wind River Reservation. Jocelyn Watts’ killing remains unsolved, and Jade Wagon’s death was ruled accidental, but the family has lingering questions about what happened,” NBC News reported on Sept. 24.

“The Petito case has highlighted the disparity in police resources and media attention often focused on missing white women compared to missing people of color and generated calls for law enforcement to treat all cases similarly.”

Regarding her sisters’ disappearances, Tianna Wagon told NBC: “The cases weren’t highlighted as much as Gabby’s.”

The TV news report also noted that “Jade Wagon was among the 710 Indigenous people reported missing in Wyoming in the past decade, according to a report this year by the University of Wyoming. It found that 85 percent of the missing were minors, 57 percent are women and girls, and Indigenous people were about 100 percent more likely to still be missing after 30 days than white people.”

In September, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, commented on the Petito case during a press conference. She said that Native American family members put up posters of their missing daughters on fences and buildings in the hope of locating them. Haaland has seen the posters that remind her of her own sisters and relatives.

“I see my mother. I see my aunties or my nieces or even my own child,” said Haaland, according to an AP report. “So I feel that every woman and every person who is in this victimized place deserves attention and deserves to be cared about.”

The AP report mentioned that Haaland, as a New Mexico congresswoman, advocated for a bill signed into law last year to address “the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous women. The law, known as Savanna’s Act, is intended to help law enforcement track, solve and prevent crimes against Native American, especially women and girls.

“The law is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake tribe who was abducted and killed in 2017 near Fargo, North Dakota. Greywind, 22, was pregnant, and her unborn baby was cut from her body. Her remains were found in the Red River.”

On a related issue, my wife, who works as a special education aide at South High School in Minneapolis, mentioned that students had walked out of school on a Friday in late September for a demonstration in memory of Native children who died in residential schools and in support of boarding school survivors.

Hundreds of people marched through South Minneapolis to raise awareness of the traumatic legacy of the boarding schools. According to a report on Native News Online, the march was organized by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and sponsored by the Minneapolis American Indian Center, Tiwahe Foundation, Ain Dah Yung, the Lower Phalen Creek Project, and other Native organizations in the Twin Cities.

“Today we came together in community to honor and remember our people who experienced a strategic and intentional genocidal policy known as boarding schools,” Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center Executive Director Marisa Cumings told Native News Online.

“Many of us carry the trauma and pain in ourselves and family lines. We stand today as survivors. We stand here today in solidarity and strength to honor those who survived and those who never made it home and lost their lives at these violent government and religious institutions.”