November 2018

Honoring our Dead: Black, Brown & Anishinaabe Solidarity

Nelly Fuentes

On Nov. 1st, Black, Brown, and Anishinaabe peoples in Kalamazoo came together in a historical event to mourn, celebrate, and honor our loved ones who have transitioned. In light of Dead of the Dead, a tradition among Latinx culture, these three identities ratified our solidarity with one another as we practiced community healing.

The event began with a ceremony honoring Anishinaabe land lead by members of the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (MCARSM.) Women drummers’ song welcomed the different identities into the space. WE were guided by an elder into surrounding a mound that is believed to be sacred burial ground. Attendees of different identities helped members of MCERSM surround the mound with temporary fencing since their official request to the city for permanent fencing that will protect the mound has not been honored. We then transitioned to the building of a Day of the Dead Ofrenda (altar.)

Cosecha Kalamazoo, Cosecha Grand Rapids, and Despierta Kalamazoo invited the community to take part of a ceremony that takes place among most Latinx households during the Day of the Dead: the building of an Ofrenda. Colorful skulls of different sizes, paper marigolds, and papel picado were placed on La Ofrenda by members of Cosecha. THe community was then invited to place pictures and letters of loved ones who have transitioned on La Ofrenda. All three levels of the altar were filled with pictures, personal objects, and favorite foods of the ones we miss and mourn. Per our traditions, we left La Ofrenda at Bronson Park until Nov. 3rd. Our hearts were touched to learn that La Ofrenda remained intact and that more pictures and letters were added in the subsequent days.

The Black community was represented by We Active, Project X, Rooted, and For The Good. Following La Ofrenda, Black folks formed a circle in the middle of the stage to engage in a cypher. This important cultural tradition was shared as part of the historical way communication has happened fur us: orally. Rooted shared the tradition of African dancing with the whole community as we all followed the rhythm of the drums. We honor the earth, the crops, and the people present physically and spiritually. Once dancing was over, we walked to the steps of city hall to place candles and crosses on the steps in remembrance of all the lives that we have lost during the winter due to homelessness, and all the lives that we will imminently loose.

In Kalamazoo, we believe that it is through our collective action and organizing is that we will attain our collective liberation. This event was the first step towards building just that.

Recognizing the past on this Dia de los Muertos

Monica Washington Padula
Unenrolled Saginaw Band Ojibwe (Wheaton Family)

To honor the Indigenous of the US and Canada, we must honor the resilience that gave way to our revival. We remember purposeful tactics created to divide us from our families, our communities, our languages, our homelands, and to intrinsically devastate our connection to our identities. We recognize the tactics of parent-child separation, White claims to Indigenous children and being able to provide better welfare, and the separation of ethnic groups that kept us from knowing about the plights of one another. To honor the Indigenous of the lands we are standing on today, we recognize that many of us survived. And that is a testament to our will to endure through the violence that intended to subdue us in order to allow invasion of our resources and ways of life to benefit another, European settlers and their descendants.

As we reflect on ways to honor our dead today, we cannot overlook images we have seen in books, online, as described by our Elders and family members, and read on pages of newspaper articles, of how our dead were treated by White people. How our children at residential schools were murdered, mistreated, abuse, and beaten, and often their deaths were not recorded by the schools. How our people were subjected to Indian Removal and walked to death, exposed purposefully to elements that would certainly kill many of them en route to their new locations, and tricked into believing resources would be available to them, then denied those resources and essentially starved to death because of this. We have names of events, cities, and battles in our heads where we were subdued and murdered like animals. We remember treaties forced to be made and hard decision made by leaders to try to save their bands’ ties to their homelands. We deal with the grief of these purposeful acts of genocide, to remove us from culture, land, those who taught us about ourselves, and from our parents, as ways to eventually de-Indianize us so that the White settlers could deal with us, even ignore that we were Indian as long as we didn’t act like we were Indian. Some of us denied or did not speak about our Indigenous identities, assimilated for survival, and didn’t teach the languages to our children. When we honor our deaths, we also mourn and grieve what was taken by force, and by circumstance, outside of our control, outside of recognizing and respecting our humanities.

Yet while we are still alive and working to maintain resiliency and reestablish healthy identities and decolonize our understandings of our very selves with the help of Elders and community dedicated to help us continue pushing through this very racially violent society, we are bombarded by the reality of the normalized ongoing murders and disappearances of our Indigenous communities, in particular violence by police brutality and targeted violence towards women, often committed by intimate partners and non-Native men.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#mmiw) and Girls is a phrase and action movement that brings visibility to the ongoing terrorism that targets Indigenous women and girls, many on reservations, and leaves their cases unresolved, uninvestigated thoroughly, and frequently dismissed as “no foul play”,  leaving their families with heartache, despair, and frustration that our women and girls are so devalued and dehumanized that the effort to see our cases as worthy of being solved is not apparent in the legal systems that are supposed to bring everyone justice. May 5th is the National Day of Awareness for MMIW/G. Indigenous women are valuable, they are important, they have passed down amongst themselves the knowledge, spiritual strength, and obvious life-giving gifts of future generations, each carrying the bloodlines and histories of the former generations inside of them. Yet the statistics show that Indigenous women are murdered at ten times the national average, and 88% of crimes are from Non-Native perpetrators, 80% of rapes are by Non-Native men, and Indigenous women are four times as likely to be raped than other ethnic groups. Many of our cases go unresolved and get lost in a thicket of jurisdictional mazes, with many legal systems using jurisdictions to bounce cases around until eventually they become lost in gray area, leaving their families to conduct their own searches and be in a perpetual state of mourning their loved one. Our legal system and law enforcement investigations are largely complicit in this form of our genocide, being recorded as not launching investigations during critical beginning hours of being notified of the missing person, storing information and not reviewing it, and quickly ruling there is “no foul play” when family members insist the things assumed about their loved one are inconsistent with their knowledge of the individual.

To address these victims, I have to acknowledge that I do not have the words to speak to their spirits. I do not have the ability to verbalize the massive despair their absence from this side of Earth has caused to our communities and their families, and to their children.  I can only cry, and allow my heart to ask the Creator “nadamoshin, meenwa daga nadamoshinaang” (help me, and please help us) and allow the grief to be felt as I reflect personally on the losses to my family and internationally as Indigenous peoples. I will, in the manner of the sister movement of #SayHerName, which brings visibility to the violence against deaths of Black women largely by the hands of police, speak the names and circumstances of a handful of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Please give respectful silence during the namings to pray for their families and address them in your heart. The suffix “bah” is added to acknowledge their ongoing existence in the spirit world.

Felicia Velvet Solomon-bah, from Winnipeg, Manitoba-16, 10th grade, disappeared Mar 2003, remains found June 2003, family notified about her found remains in Oct. 2003

Tina Fontaine-bah, from Manitoba-15, disappeared July 2014, found wrapped in material in a river in Aug 2014

Patricia “Trish” Carpenter-bah, from Toronto-14, mother, found Sept 1992 at a Toronto construction site, head-down in a small hole and expired from asphyxiation

Savannah Hall-bah, from British Columbia-3, hospitalized Jan 2001, died two days later, a foster child who was in a coma with massive brain swelling, hypothermia, and multiple bruisings on the body, death ruled a homicide in 2007

Olivia Lone Bear-bah, from the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota-32, mother of five, disappeared Oct 2017, found submerged in her vehicle in July 2018 after search led by brother, in a lake a mile from her home, overlooked by law enforcement water searches

Ashley Loring-Heavyrunner, from the Montana Blackfeet reservation-20, disappeared June 2017, still missing

Jermain Austin Charlo, from Missoula, Montana-23, missing since June 2018, feared to be human trafficking victim, still missing

Aielah Saric-Auger-bah, from British Columbia-14, disappeared Feb 2006. Found on Highway 16, known as the “Highway of Tears”.

Savannah LaFontaine-Greywind-bah, from Fargo,ND-22, pregnant woman, lured to neighbor’s upstairs apartment to model a dress they were sewing, had fetus cut from them, then was killed and wrapped in plastic and duct tape and disposed of in the river. Biological father attained custody of infant who survived, named Haisley Jo as planned by Savannah and her boyfriend. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) introduced “Savanna’s Act” to legislation to ensure ND tribes have the information needed and access to databases allowing them to proactively protect women and girls from violence, abduction, human trafficking, and to solve crimes of those missing.  

Please take a moment to add names from your family and loved ones of those missing, murdered, and taken by violence to Indigenous people. Speak aloud using the suffix “bah” or in your heart.

To our missing and murdered of all genders and identities, I say firmly: “You are NOT FORGOTTEN. You are IMPORTANT to us. You are HONORED by us. We miss you and your presence in our lives. Miigwetch for being there for us in the spirit world. We grieve that you were taken in violence and in hate. We love you.”

Aho, chi miigwetch.

Art Reyes