Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

Six Indigenous students took a stand to bring attention to this issue during commencement


Indigenous students took a stand to bring attention to this issue during Syracuse University's commencement on May 13, 2018.

SYRACUSE, NY. On Mother's Day during Syracuse University's 164th commencement, a group of graduating Indigenous students took off their gowns to reveal messages like, "No More Stolen Indigenous Sisters" and "Respect Indigenous Women," to bring awareness to the rising epidemic of "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)."

"We are wearing red today in honor of our thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous sisters that the mainstream and media are not giving due attention," said Michelle Schenandoah, a member of the Oneida Nation who is graduating with a graduate degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

"There are over 5,700 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States, over 1,200 in Canada and extremely high murder rates in Mexico," she said. "Imagine all of the children who don't have their mother today."

Schenandoah also has her J.D. and LL.M. in Taxation from New York Law School, where she focused her studies on the impact of the legal system on Indigenous people in the U.S.

"The invisibility of Indigenous people is pervasive across North America. Every law student across the U.S. begins their course of study by learning the "doctrine of discovery," which states that says Indigenous people do not have souls - and therefore, our lives and lands can be taken. This is valid U.S. law today," she said. "It's caused the creation of hundreds of years of violent policies toward Indigenous people, from extinguishing nations of people with the stroke of a pen and by force."

"It's no wonder that this country cannot see or hear us, the erasure of our identity is embedded in the law, which makes it way into our educational systems, from elementary right up to institutions of higher education like Syracuse University."

Hayley Cavino, Maori from Aotearoa/New Zealand, a PhD graduate in Cultural Foundations of Education at Syracuse University and professor in Indigenous Studies, took her graduation gown off to reveal her red MMIW t-shirt and Indigenous ribbon skirt just before she walked on stage to receive her degree.

"Much of the violence indigenous women face is a result of the ongoing effects of colonization. In North America a recent manifestation of this issue is related to mineral extraction," she said. "'Man camps' house male workers who are increasingly targeting Indigenous women - many of these women become the missing or murdered. As a Polynesian woman I'm also concerned with how U.S. militarization in the Pacific and beyond adversely affects Indigenous women's safety," she said.

In response to #MeToo movement, Cavino coined the hashtag, #UsToo. "Violence has a genealogy, and we know the impacts ripple out and affect everyone in our communities. The issue of missing and murdered indigenous women is not a singular act of violence against a woman, it's against her entire people."

"The matter of missing and murdered Indigenous people extends to our men," said Janet B. Flores, a Syracuse University student from the Guachichil Nation in Mexico, who is graduating with her bachelor's degree in geography.

"Between 2006-2012, there were over 120,000 homicides in Mexico-all related to the conditions the legacy of colonization creates for Indigenous people South of a border, that was never ours to begin with;" Flores said, "and this number is rising."

"Stories of kidnappings and gruesome murders have become so commonplace in Mexico that I've lost count of how many people who I knew in some way were affected by this during my time as a student at Syracuse University," she said.

"It's important for people in the U.S. to understand this violence stems from U.S. involvement in Mexico through the Merida Initiative, an aid initiative supposedly designed to combat criminal organizations," Flores said. "It wasn't by accident these resources ended up in the wrong hands-after 500 years of oppression, I believe this initiative was crafted to continue the genocide of Indigenous people," she said.

The issue of missing Indigenous people doesn't stop with adults.This year alone, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the Department of Homeland Security has lost track of 1,500 immigrant children who were detained as they sought refuge from violence in their home countries in Central America.

"This is not new news to Indigenous people of Turtle Island. The U.S. and Canadian governments have been taking Indigenous children away from their families for generations. This is so awful and shameful," Schenandoah said. "It's part of the ongoing genocide of our peoples."

"In classes, Indigenous students are continually forced to educate our peers and professors about our history and who we are today. Syracuse University is in the heart of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy - the very people who gave the U.S. democracy and women's rights, and while there is a relationship in place between us and SU, our students should not have to be in positions as educators about our people," Schenandoah said.

Paige Priest, a member of the Seneca Nation, is graduating with a bachelor's degree in Women and Gender studies. "Through Professor Hayley Cavino's course, Indigenous Women's Lives: Culture, Colonization and Resistance, I found my voice as an Indigenous woman at Syracuse University," she said.

"It allowed me to look deeper into my own culture and showed me the importance of using my voice. For so many years our people have been silenced and it is time to stop that. We have voices that matter and are important to hear," Priest said.

"We chose to wear red in the Dome for graduation in front of the entire school--faculty, students and families, because it is a highly visible place, and normally a space where our voices are marginalized and our identity overshadowed," Schenandoah said.

"Our hope is that as a result of our actions today, more space in will be created to hear the voice of Indigenous peoples, to learn about this country's true history and what Indigenous people have to contribute to the world today."

You can advocate for change in schools to include Indigenous history and current issues, and bring this issue of MMIW to the attention of your state legislators. To learn more about local Indigenous history and current developments, visit: To learn more about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, you can track the movement and community on social media with the hashtags #MMIW, #UsToo and #NiUnaMas.


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