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'Look for Me, Please': How Indigenous Women Work to Help Each Other When Authorities Turn a Blind Eye

It is a travesty that we're not fully investigating the disappearance of indigenous women—whether or not they lived model lives.
Mist on the Fraser River in Delta, British Columbia, Canada.

Mist on the Fraser River in Delta, British Columbia, Canada.

Shawnee Inyallie is described as naïve and sweet by the people who knew her, and when the 29-year-old Chawathil woman went missing in mid-July of last year in Hope, British Columbia, her community mobilized quickly, organizing searches in spite of bureaucratic hurdles and a conspicuous lack of support from authorities. People worked together in search teams to comb the river, put up posters, and provide lunches for those who helped. I was moved by their spirit, and by Shawnee's smile in the pictures her family shared. Several of my friends had warm things to say about her, and although Shawnee and I had only known one another via social media, her disappearance felt close to home: If she could go missing, any one of us could. I offered a reward, imagining it would help find her safe and soon.

On November 4th of last year, Inyallie's body was found in the Fraser River in Delta, British Columbia. There were no signs of how she'd come to be there—only heartbreak and questions unanswered. We still don't known how Shawnee ended up in the river, but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have told the family that no foul play is suspected.

Inyallie's brother, Pat Peters, told the Chilliwack Progress that he's been informed his sister was last seen at a homeless camp close by the river in Hope. "If that's the case, she traveled an awful long way," Peters said. "That's like 200 kilometers [from home], and I'd also like to know: How do they know when she actually died?"

Dozens of indigenous women found dead in recent years have had their deaths labeled and dismissed in similar ways, even when there was just cause to examine the circumstances of their deaths further. This is a pattern, and the families of these women tend to feel that racism plays a role in keeping these women's deaths from being thoroughly investigated. Shawnee is more than a number, more than her identity as an indigenous woman, more than the stigmas and misconceptions that loom over us—and her life deserves more consideration than it got.

"A family member is never a number," Peters told the Progress. "They are a brother, sister, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather. Before they are Native or any other race, junky or drunk, they are human. ... No matter the circumstances that brought any of them to where they are, being missing or passed away, they are an important part of somebody's family."

Peters' words reminded me of a post that Native women from my area, some of them related by blood to Inyallie, were sharing widely around the time her body was found. It's a simple request: a copied-and-pasted statement telling our friends to please look for us if we go missing:

I am a First Nations woman. If there ever comes a time I disappear; where I go to the grocery store and don't return, I go to run some errands and don't return ... please know, I didn't voluntarily leave my family. I am not out partying or doing drugs. I didn't leave to commit suicide. I DON'T live a "high risk lifestyle." If I ever DO NOT return home, know that someone took me against my will. Don't make excuses as to WHY I might have not returned home, because it is a lie. Look for me, please.

Being a Native woman, there's a target on my back. I feel it! I truly do! Far too many of our Native sisters are disappearing. To all my sisters please be careful and be safe wherever you are and wherever you go.

The post is succinct, emotionally direct. Every time I saw it, I thought of Inyallie, and of myself, and of the women I know who might not exactly be described in the post, even though its larger point still applies to them. The truth is, sometimes I do party. Sometimes Native women go missing during parties. Sometimes we go missing while we're also running away. Some of us go missing and don't have homes, like Shawnee. Sometimes my mental illness puts me in high-risk situations, where I consider self-harm or even ending my own life. The Facebook post is inclusive in many important ways, and I understand its intent, but its simplicity leaves out people like me and some of the women I love. If any of us go missing, we still deserve to be found. If any of us are displaced, we come from people who believed that everyone in our community deserves a home. If any of us are hurt, beaten, or exploited, we deserve justice, even if we were engaging in "high-risk" behaviors.

Shawnee and the other women in our communities deserve better. In a just world, we wouldn't need to read Pat Peters' statements, or the plaintive Facebook post about indigenous women who go missing; it should all go without saying. Instead, we live in a world where we need to say these things—to spell out the most basic elements of our humanity, our worth. In too many of these cases, red tape continues to stand between a search party and the woman who's missing. Native women don't just disappear on their own; someone must have seen Inyallie before she disappeared forever. Yet Native women are still at the point where we have to say, "Look for me, please."

My life as a woman has been marked by so many stories of women who look like me going missing, and by the statistics about our lives: how short they will be, or how likely it is that we won't go untouched by sexual violence. And now my life, along with that of my community, is marked again with the loss of Shawnee Inyallie, haunted by all the questions that won't be answered, not for her, for her family, or for so many Native women—so many Native women that a social media post explicitly asking the reader to look for us has become necessary.