Invisibility in the Silence of Grief, Loss, and Rage

L to R: Nicole Anderson, Mary Sam, Mikayla Schaaf, Dana Skinaway-Sam — all MMIR advocates and family members in grief

In the woods, on the lakes, away from the cities, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) — alongside sex trafficking and sexual assault — are a source of incredible grief, fear, loss, and rage. Central Minnesota, where we live, has been a hub of trafficking, domestic violence, addiction, child abuse, and murder.

Many factors continue to feed this cycle, including lack of services in rural Minnesota, systemic racism, institutional barriers, mobility of Indigenous people to and from the cities, leaders who will not respond, and jurisdictional issues. Yet small circles are breaking the silence in Brainerd and the Mille Lacs community to raise awareness, intervene, and support those impacted by violence. Truths are opening up through relationships, conversations, creation of transparency, and identification of issues.

One question we have: How do we create systems of prevention, support, and intervention without re-victimizing? Indigenous communities know the added harm that can be done when prevention and intervention programs proselytize and reflect patriarchal systems. This reinforces the oppression and violence of the boarding school era.

There is big money in trafficking, and societal discrimination, which leads to tolerating violence in the community.

Kate Kalk, director of the Mille Lacs Band Family Violence Prevention Program, says: “There are many people in our communities that are active perpetrators of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking, including some currently in positions of power. If we do not move past the dysfunction in our communities, there will continue to be victimization.”

Crow Wing County assistant attorney Janine LePage says, “We know it is here, but we miss it. When we see it, many of the victims do not know how to live outside of it. It is a secret thing, well-orchestrated, moving kids and women around in rural communities and across state lines. Traffickers are good at controlling the victims and their families, and at maintaining the secrecy. Many Indigenous children and adults we work with are afraid of family or social services finding out, afraid of kids being taken away, or afraid of being further harmed by the perpetrators and system.”

Conversations with professionals who work with those impacted express a common theme: victims blame themselves for the abuse, and do not believe they have another choice.

It is difficult for Indigenous women to trust systems, helpers, and organizations. In some communities, there are individuals in helping roles that may be unsafe, including therapists, clergy, Elders, self-proclaimed or recognized spiritual advisors. Some fear police and those in power, and know that many look away. There is not much hope that things can get better, so the cycle continues.

Mikayla Schaaf from Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe says, “Many of us become desensitized to trauma. I am committed to being the grandmother who breaks the cycles many of us are familiar with.”

Local K-12 schools are dealing with pornography being shared via social media and cellphones by elementary children. In general, we tend not to talk with kids about sex, our bodies, personal safety, or healthy relationships. This contributes to the foundation for violence.

We need more people involved in healing work. Men are essential to this process.

In Testament

Trigger warning — the following contains graphic mention of domestic and sexual violence.

Nicole Anderson

As a Native American woman who has lived through child abuse, poverty, and addiction, I know what it is like to be invisible. I straightened my life out, continued my education, and found my way in the world. Before I learned the art of speaking professionally, I was disregarded, and my presence was diminished. That invisibility is painful. It is like you do not matter, because you don’t. The results are far too real: vanished, missing, murdered.

Dana Skinaway-Sam

Tanya Skinaway 12/7/1992- 3/2/2016

We lost our daughter Tanya to a violent man. We learned quickly that many offenders are not held accountable. The impact of grief and suffering on the grandchildren we are raising is heartbreaking. How do we explain what happened to their momma? There is so much anger, blaming, and cycles of addiction that continue to keep us stuck. Every day it feels like I am sinking in quicksand and not able to come up for air. We hope that by the time our five-year-old granddaughter is older, she will not have to live in a world that is silent about these issues. This is why I speak up. Our stories need to be heard, valued, and the systems of law need to change.

David ‘Amik’ Sam

What we see is what we learn. What we learn is how we behave. This results in addiction, womanizing, and, for some, domestic and sexual violence. There was no one to talk to about it, as most of us grew up in similar circumstances. This has been about silence, fear, isolation, shame, loyalty, and power.

Five years ago, my granddaughter was murdered. Fear of accountability, refusing to say the words murder or trafficking, can no longer be accepted as normal. Women who grow up in these systems have been abused by Native men, white men, and men of color. We see this at gas stations and hotels, resorts, and in fish houses.

Coming from a background like many men of my generation, having battered in my younger years, I am very sad to have been a part of these problems. Falling back on the notion that I did not know any better is not acceptable.

Mary Sam

I have often felt invisible, growing up thinking that addiction, violence, and sexual abuse by those in power, including those in ‘spiritual leader’ roles, was normal. As an older woman, still grieving the death of my 23-year-old granddaughter, the community silence has added another layer to my pain. I also have been isolated because people simply do not know what to say, how to act, or how to not judge our family.

The big fat secret, stated by many families, is that we continue to let this happen. Without leadership in the region and state, these cycles of violence will continue, and more people will die. We cannot heal our communities if we have not done the healing work ourselves.

Healing ourselves is very hard work. Healing our community is even harder. Both take courage.

Kate Kalk

My great-aunt Ruby Kegg (1925-1942) was 16 years old when she was found naked and dead in front of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Trading Post. She was sexually assaulted and murdered. Her death was never investigated or solved. This had a powerful impact on my great-grandmother and her daughters, including my grandmother Loretta. Historical trauma has been passed down for generations.

Community-based Solutions

noted by Mary Sam and Nicole Anderson

Kimberly Pilgrim, director of the Meta 5 Family Resilience Program at Central Lakes College (CLC), serves many women and some men whose lives have been scorched by violence, by providing safe places for people to reclaim their lives. “The devastation that has been done to the human spirit is almost impossible to conceive,” she says. “It is a problem for all of us to solve, as each one of us owns this.”

CLC, with campuses located in Brainerd and Staples, provides help in the region through connections and education about MMIR issues. Mallori Sheik, CLC Accessibility Services Director, leads education and training efforts focused on sexual violence prevention and intervention. “Community collaboration is a vital part of our prevention efforts,” she says. 

Becky Twamley, executive director of WeARE in Brainerd, says outreach work at CLC has focused on LGBTQ+ support and education, and men’s role in building safe communities and reducing sex trafficking.  

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is focused on advocacy to identify the core issues that contribute to the crisis, helping survivors understand the dynamics that lead to MMIR. The Family Violence Prevention Program is leading initiatives to break these cycles.

Nicole Anderson (she/her) is Health and Human Services Commissioner of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and serves on the state’s MMIW Task Force. Mary Sam (she/her) is Dean of Students, Equity, and Inclusion at Central Lakes College.