“Why can I enjoy this forest but not my ancestors? Why are indigenous people erased from history & society?” Rho Cabrera

By Rho Cabrera (They/Them) and Artwork By Steph Littlebird

As a kid, I had a deep fascination with the land. I would spend hours outside, with a walking stick running through neighborhood parks and ponds. Friends and I would make fishing rods out of twill and branches, catching small fish and turtles. I have always had this fondness over the land in our New England coast, so when I learned about the colonization as a small child, I had a deep emotion; why can I enjoy this forest but not my ancestors? Why are indigenous people erased from history & society? 

My ancestry comes from indigenous tribes in Mexico and the American southwest; these are lands that belonged to many nations and tribes before there was an existence of borders & immigration officers. I had the privilege of learning Spanish and English at the same time, and be successfully assimilated into American schooling. Growing up my facial features where not seen in magazines or music videos, my sister a half black first-generation person grew up with a different experience of American society then I did. I had no representation other than Disney’s Pocahontas or learning about Indian corn and cornucopias in October.  As I grew older, I began to search for my ancestry and found that I am about 50% Native American, from tribes ranging in Mexico (Purepecha/Aztec) and Arizona (Pueblo/Hopi). I connected to these ancestors more and more through learning about their arts, YouTubed what their music sounded like, googled what their native language; Nahuatl and how it was pronounced. It was then I also learned about the fetishization and exploitation of Native/Indigenous women and girls. 

“My grandmother was an Apache” the young white man in front of me said to me while I smiled halfheartedly. This night, amongst my childhood friends in my local bar was what changed my perspective of actively being involved in decolonizing my life. I found myself being the center of attention in circles where my identity as an indigenous person was not seen but rather spoken about in school plays around Thanksgiving time. I found myself being at the center of questions for those who were genuinely curious, and for others who actively tried to insult my identity. It is a conflicting feeling being both fetishized, sexualized, and called “Exotic” for my similarities to a Disney princess like Pocahontas (who was actually an exploited indigenous woman) while also feeling rage, anger and a willingness to educate others on the native experience. Today, one this Indigenous Peoples Day, I allow myself to feel these emotions and many more as I hold in remembrance the indigenous women in my life and around the globe. 

My grandmother a native woman, died before I was even born. I have not seen a picture of her, writings or videos. Only stories every now and then when my father could’ve mustered up the courage to speak about her, as she died when he was 12. Her death was a result of both the complications domestic violence played on her health and a lack of medical advocacy for indigenous peoples. All I hold dear now is facts from her home Mexican-state of Hidalgo, which is known for its rich resources in opal, onyx/obsidian mining and the colorful arts of the native Otomi peoples.  

According to Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women 4 out of 5 Native women are affected by violence today; The U.S Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average. Homicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among 10-24 years of age and the fifth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women between 25 and 34 years of age. – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Homicide” https://www.csvanw.org/mmiw The statistics are staggering, when speaking about this in public spaces I often find people be surprised and compelled to learn more about the data. How each number and rising line is a sister, mother, aunt or grandmother; a woman who is the lifeline of a community, of a family. Since before pipelines and corporations forcibly invaded sacred reservation lands of the indigenous peoples, of what little they now have left, the effects of colonization have affected our ancestors.  

The effects of intergenerational trauma have a unique DNA signature only seen to African-Americans and Native Americans, in a study provided by Strong Hearts Native Helpline they say; “This signature is known as intergenerational trauma and has been passed down through generations of survivors – Holocaust survivors, Native Americans and African Americans share the same epigenetic chemical signature. According to a New York Times science report “Can We Really Inherit Trauma?” epigenetic research is in its infancy, but supports preliminary findings that suggest trauma transmission is plausible. The idea of trauma transmission presumably occurs before conception, but other studies also suggest that trauma can be expressed after conception and within the womb of abused pregnant mothers. In a report issued by Michigan State University titled “Domestic abuse may affect children in womb,” the study is the first to link abuse of pregnant women with emotional and behavioral trauma symptoms in their children within the first year of life. Symptoms include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact, and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.” https://strongheartshelpline.org/abuse/colonization-and-domestic-violence 

What happens when a Native American/Indigenous woman goes missing or is found murdered? In the recent weeks of late September, we have seen the case of Gabby Petito overflow screens all across America. A young beautiful white American woman goes missing, due to a case of domestic violence and mental health complications only to be found murdered and abandoned in the American south-west. This is a family and a community’s worst nightmare, a collective heavy heart was shared through virtual media, and social media was flooded with pictures of the young woman and her dreams that ended abruptly due to domestic violence. Alternatively, this brought an uproar of responses from the Native American community to find our sisters who according to a statistic performed by the Wyoming: Division of Domestic Services in the beginning of 2021 till most recently, there has been 710 missing indigenous women, 85% are juvenile, 57% are female. As for those who have been murdered, as we know there has been 105 Indigenous peoples (34 females, 71 males) were victims of homicide between 2000-2020 with a general media coverage of missing/murdered Indigenous peoples at 30% compared to 51% white homicide victims. The Native American justice system is complex and in the most recent years changing to allow the United States federal government to give maximum offenses to both native and non-native offenders of violent crimes in tribe country.  

On May 5th, the nation observed this day as the National Day of Remembrance for Missing & Murdered Native Women & Girls. As of 2020 Savannas Act (Public Law No.116-165)  was passed. The bill provides that the Department of Justice implement these rules; 

  • provide training to law enforcement agencies on how to record tribal enrollment for victims in federal databases; 
  • develop and implement a strategy to educate the public on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System; 
  • conduct specific outreach to tribes, tribal organizations, and urban Indian organizations regarding the ability to publicly enter information through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or other non-law enforcement sensitive portal; 
  • develop regionally appropriate guidelines for response to cases of missing or murdered Native Americans; 
  • provide training and technical assistance to tribes and law enforcement agencies for implementation of the developed guidelines; and 
  • report statistics on missing or murdered Native Americans. 

It is a great reminder of decade’s law community mourning and search for justice from both Native leaders and American government officials. An acknowledgement overdue since 1496, when the war for “saving the man, killing the Indian” was encouraged for the “advancement” of American history. When the Dawes Act destroyed cultures, languages, arts and the genocide of native’s peoples in 1882 till as recent as the closing of Indian Boarding schools in the mid 90’s. Slowly, the narrative of one population of storytellers is changing in our American history, adding voices of bipoc people’s victories along with their struggles who helped shaped this country. 

There is a part of me that is blessed to have multiple identities in the diaspora, one of them being of indigenous background has allowed me to learn along with other bipoc folks about our own history of this country and how it is everchanging. The invisibility of indigenous peoples in our present-day history is working to its visibility point by young people bringing to light issues that has been affecting the tribal community for generations. Thanks to social media and virtual resources, there is no excuse to not learn about the stories of our bipoc communities, and how they are changing our history as Americans. I hope on this Indigenous Peoples Day and every day we can remember our ancestors, who have paved a way for our communities. 

If you are interested in this topic and are looking to dig deeper, here are some links: 

  • Newsy: A Broken Trust: Sexual Assault on Tribal Lands (48 minutes) 
  • The Search: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women| Fault Lines (26 minutes) 


If you need resources or advocacy The Center for Hope and Healing has a 24/7 helpline to help you or your loved ones get the support they need to be free from sexual violence. We are LGBTQIA+ friendly and can provide resources in multiple languages. Contact us at: 800-542-5212