When I stepped on the campus of Northland College in the fall of 2018, I walked softly. Leaving my homeland in New Mexico was a drastic change, but like many students, I made the journey for an education.
Entering college for the first time, I expected labs, lectures, and libraries. I didn’t expect that so many learning experiences would happen outside of the classroom.
As a citizen of the Navajo Nation and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, I am curious about the tribes and peoples who call Lake Superior their home like the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) nations.
Last winter I came across a 2011 academic publication, “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” written by Christine Stark, an Anishinaabeg and Cherokee scholar and others, on Native women being sold into the sex industry on ships along the shores of Lake Superior.
Stunned, I started researching this epidemic affecting primarily the Indigenous peoples around the lake. Native women are the most at risk for the sex trade. According to the National Crime Information Center, about 10,000 Native American women were reported missing under suspicious circumstances in 2018.
As part of a journalism course at Northland, I interviewed Donna Amparan, the sister of a woman who has disappeared. I met Donna in Duluth at the 4th Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Memorial March earlier this year. This March is organized as a way to remember Indigenous women from many communities whose stories have not been told. This was a chance for families to grieve, love, and tell those stories.
Donna’s sister, Sheila St. Claire, a citizen of the White Earth Band of the Ojibwe located in northwestern Minnesota, was thirty-five years old at the time of her disappearance in August of 2015. The last time she was seen was through security footage from an apartment complex in Duluth.
Four years later, she is still missing and Sheila’s family and an entire community yearn for answers, a feeling that is all too familiar in Indian Country. According to Donna, her sister struggled with substance abuse and because of this her case has not been given the attention and efforts needed to find her.
All too often, Indigenous people are seen as a throwaway population, Native women hold no value and are treated as something disposable.
“All these issues are so connected to all of our historical trauma issues and the issues that come up in the Native community as far as being invisible,” said Marcia Kitto, the sexual assault advocate for the Fond du Lac Human Services, who attended the March.
While speaking with Marcia, Donna and other Native women at this event, I found that cultural differences that exist between Native communities and non-native investigators/law enforcement is a significant issue that causes roadblocks in investigations.
Family members of the missing prefer a more family/grassroots initiative as opposed to an institutional approach frequently implemented by law enforcement.
Donna says she often thinks of her missing sister when she crosses the John A. Blatnik Bridge connection from Duluth to Superior, Wisconsin. “Every time I pass over that bridge over there somewhere in that Superior area, I feel her presence, how can you tell a cop that?”
Mya Simon studies English and Native American studies. She is an active member of the Native American Student Association and recently interviewed Ojibwe author Linda LeGarde Grover, who will be speaking Wednesday, October 9 at 7 p.m. at Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute from her new novel about a Native American woman missing since the 1970s.