Symposium Explores Injustices to Indigenous Women

By: Jana Eisenberg

Published January 17, 2018

The School of Social Work’s second daylong symposium, “Indigenous Women: Human Rights Protections and Activism” took place on March 30. In collaboration with Native, academic, and community partners, the largest annual off-campus event hosted by the school’s Global Interest Group explored numerous issues and topics featuring a panel of speakers..

A diverse group of about 70 attendees, including high school and secondary students, faculty and professionals, indigenous and non-indigenous people, shared with and learned from each other about these deeply relevant, resonant issues.

In her opening remarks, Dean Nancy Smyth said, “We understand that a society’s structures have a large effect on people’s risk of trauma. The United States is an example of a system that doesn’t consider how it is experienced by multiple populations. The way indigenous people have been treated is – and continues to be – shameful.”

Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Hilary Weaver, one of the event organizers and host for the proceedings, continued with welcoming comments, including acknowledging “the people whose territory we stand on today.” The symposium took place at the main library in downtown Buffalo, land where Seneca people once lived. Weaver, herself a Native woman (she’s Lakota by birth and, through culture, since moving to the Buffalo region in 1993, Haudenosaunee) said, “My culture is very important to me; I’m grounded in my indigenous ways.”

Crucial circumstances

Weaver said she is thankful to be part of a profession that appreciates diversity and challenges injustice. “Today’s event is the realization of a long-held dream, and we gather in a thankful way that acknowledges the gifts of creation,” she expanded. “One of our goals is to raise awareness about crucial and often overlooked circumstances.”

The circumstances to which Weaver referred included the thousands of murdered and missing indigenous women in the Americas; the complex laws surrounding prosecuting crimes committed on tribal land, inadequate law enforcement investigations, lack of media coverage, and the simple fact that indigenous women and girls are sexually abused, abducted and/or murdered at a hugely disproportionate rate, and with far less reaction from the greater society. (The previous day, the related documentary, “Highway of Tears”, was screened at the SSW.)

Weaver noted that this is both a historic and contemporary issue. She also posited that she chooses to look at the issue not only from a “deficit perspective.”

“We wanted to say, ‘People are doing something about this’; talk about activism and how we’re moving toward more safety for indigenous people,” she noted after the event. “We reached out to people who are doing creative work using technology for activism.”

'Our American heritage'

Due to several deaths in her community, planned keynote speaker Beverley Jacobs did not appear in person. Jacobs, Mohawk, Six Nations of the Grand River, an activist, attorney, and former head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was the primary researcher for the 2004 Amnesty International report, “Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada.”

As a result of Jacobs’ absence, and with the flexibility necessary when holding large events, the program morphed to add multimedia presentations as well as more time spent on question-and-answer and interchange between attendees and panelists.

Other panelists included Jaynie Parrish, Navajo Nation, instructor in American Indian studies, and a social media consultant, and Melanie Sage, assistant professor of social work, who has published on the ethical use of social media for social workers. They both teach at the University of North Dakota.

In a brief video, artist, educator and activist Whisper Kish discussed the history of colonization and genocide, and the heritage of violence against indigenous women in North America. “‘Sexual terrorism’ is…alive,” she said. “It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ will your body be violated.” She quoted the statistic that one in three Native women will be raped in her life, calling it “our American heritage.”

Resonating discussion

The ensuing comments and conversation felt immediate. Referring to the room as being filled with “allies,” Weaver iterated how important it is to talk and educate about the issue. She screened Beverley Jacobs’ TED Talk, “How do we Stop Aboriginal Women from Disappearing” which, even though it was given several years ago, remains on point.

The day expanded to include songs, anecdotes and brainstorming about actions to take. Inspiration came from the participation of Quinna Hamby and Sienna Hoover, Niagara Wheatfield High School students and activists who live on the Tuscarora reservation.

Towards the end of the day, attendee Jocelyn Jones, Wolf Clan, summed up part of the prevailing attitude: “We can’t undo [hundreds of] years of intergenerational trauma overnight. But we need to help native populations find ways to heal, so the next generations can start to have a chance to live without some of this pain we’ve been carrying around.”

The day ended with a simple yet powerful “women warrior” dance, accompanied by Darelyn Spruce, Hawk Clan singer and drummer. She needed no amplification to make her song heard. All joined hands.