A volcanic governmental report out of Canada this week has exposed what is being called “a Canadian genocide” of murdered or missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). This study, which is called “”Reclaiming Power and Place,” is 1,200 pages long and involves interviews with over 1,400 family members. It exposes in stark, data-packed detail what Indigenous activists—particularly Indigenous women—have been calling out for years. On some reservations, Indigenous women are 10 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than any other group in North America. Eighty-four percent of Indigenous women report physical or psychological abuse in their lifetimes. As Michele Audette, commissioner for MMIWG Inquiry said, “To the people who don’t think this is a genocide, we have 1,200 pages to prove it.”
At a little-known Division II high-school track-and-field meet in Washington State, a series of bracing, viral photos have brought attention to the issue. A senior track star named Rosalie Fish, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a senior at Muckleshoot Tribal School, dominated the meet. As she ran her way to multiple medals in the Washington State 1B track and field championship, Fish also had a statement to make. She ran with a red painted handprint over the side of her face and mouth. Then she painted the letters MMIW on her right leg. Speaking to The Spokesman-Review, Fish said, “I had a lot of people ask me, ‘Aren’t you happy to be state champion?’ Suddenly, my state meet felt insignificant compared to what I was running for.”
Fish competed in multiple races, more than her usual number of events, despite exhaustion. She wanted each race to pay tribute to a different missing or murdered Indigenous woman. Her time undoubtedly suffered for using this strategy—both the emotion involved and the sheer number of events—but she still won three golds, a silver, and the sportsmanship award. Fish had the full support of her coach Michael Williams, who said to her, “The outcome of the race is not as important as what you’re doing with the paint.”
I reached out to the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa, Canada, one of the foremost organizations who have worked on raising awareness of MMIWG. They said: “The Assembly of First Nations commends Rosalie Fish and all efforts that help raise awareness of the national epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and the urgent need for action to end violence. Education and awareness lead to understanding and action, and that’s exactly what’s needed to ensure the safety and security of Indigenous women, girls, LGBTQ2S and all those at risk. There is a role for everyone in ending violence and we lift up Ms. Fish for being a change maker and for using her recent track accomplishments as a platform to help drive change.”
The Nation also spoke to Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Lubicon Cree climate activist whose sister’s mysterious and still unsolved death in 2013 made personal her work advocating for MMIW and led her to testify to the commission along with her family. She applauded the action of Rosalie Fish as a “brilliant way to raise awareness of the issues that our families deal with.” This awareness is something that Laboucan-Massimo and her community have been fighting for for years. “For us indigenous people, this is nothing new. We’ve known this from day one at the onset of colonization that we’ve experienced this level of violence and raping and pillaging of the lands and of our women. These things go hand in hand.”
I also received comment from Tracie Leost, an Indigenous activist from the Metis community St. Laurent, Manitoba, and a medalist runner at the North American Indigenous Games. Leost’s Metis name is Ogitchida Ikwe, which means Warrior Woman, and it is very appropriate. Leost made national news when she ran a four-day 115-kilometre run (about 72 miles) to raise awareness around the same issue of the murdered and missing. She said to me:
“Rosalie Fish’s act of solidarity to represent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls during her races is powerful; and it’s working. I personally am seeing it all over my various social-media accounts. Rosalie Fish ran her 3,200-meter race for Renee Davis, her 1,600-meter race for Alice Looney, her 800-meter race for Jacqueline Salyers, and her 400-meter race for Misty Upham. It’s notable for me that Rosalie went beyond just the large-scale issue of MMIWG and chose to also focus on the stories of women who are currently missing, or women we have lost. Talking about MMIWG is one thing, providing a space where the voices of women who have been silenced through this epidemic can be heard is another; that is what Rosalie Fish is doing. I also feel like in order for the public to truly understand the severity of this epidemic, the stories of women who have been affected by this crisis have to be told. Rosalie is doing that.”
Leost then related it to her own story and said: “When I did my run in 2015 for MMIWG I said I was using my running shoes to give silence a voice. Whether she realizes it or not, Rosalie is doing the same thing for the epidemic of MMIWG. People often tried to tell me that sport is not a place for politics. I disagree. Sports are a great place for athletes to use their athletic ability and platform to highlight or take a stand for things they are passionate about, or believe need to be talked about. People need to hear about these things, and if you have to hear it from an athlete through your sport of choice, then I am just glad you have now heard about the issue. Additionally, I think this is about more than just the epidemic of murdered or missing Indigenous women and girls. I think this is also about resilience and Indigenous excellence. I cannot attest to the personal story of Rosalie Fish, but I can attest to the fact that the experience of Indigenous athletes in sport is much different from the experience of non-Indigenous athletes. The barriers are stacked far higher against Indigenous athletes. She has previously stated to the media that this is about more than just herself—it’s about running for Native people while representing Indian country. So while Rosalie uses her running shoes to give silence a voice, let’s not forget that she is a champion too.”
The inspiration for Fish’s actions of dedicating the races to the murdered or missing was a Boston Marathon runner named Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, who herself dedicated each of the 26 grueling miles to a missing or murdered indigenous woman.
“I saw a post of her with the paint in her running uniform and I just felt really inspired,” Fish said. “When I brought it up to her I didn’t even think she was going to respond, just because she’s super-busy, but she actually responded and was really enthusiastic.”
Speaking to The Seattle Times, Fish said,
“As a Native runner, it goes without saying you run for Native people. You have to realize you represent Indian Country. Nobody is going to listen to me. As a teenage girl nobody has to care what I say. But when I run about it, people will notice.”
Liz Boyd contributed reporting to this article.