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Native American women, LGBTQ community members march to end violence, oppression

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Jo-Anne Stately of the White Earth Nation listens to speakers.
Jo-Anne Stately of the White Earth Nation (center) listens to speakers Saturday at the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center before walking in the Indigenous Women's March in Minneapolis. The march was held to honor indigenous women and empower all survivors of violence.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Reva D'Nova, known as Miss Reva to her friends, has a slightly crooked smile. 

It got that way after a near-death experience: She was thrown from a three-story building by an ex-partner who was battling addiction. It took months of physical recovery — she has a metal plate in her jaw now — and more than a decade after that to heal from surviving an attempted homicide. 

"It was a process, a long process; it wasn't overnight," she said. "There are still triggers." 

D'Nova, who is transgender and a member of the Red Lake Nation, said the violence she experienced is not uncommon among women and members of the LGBTQ and two-spirit Native American communities. Two-spirit is an umbrella term for non-binary definitions of gender and sexuality within Native traditions. 

Reva D'Nova speaks about her experience as a survivor of violence.
Reva D'Nova of the Minnesota Two Spirit Society speaks about her experience as a survivor of violence before the Indigenous Women's March on Saturday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Four in five Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to the National Congress of American Indians, and women and girls go missing or are murdered at staggering rates. That, coupled with a rising trend in violence against LGBTQ individuals, was why D'Nova and more than 100 others gathered in Minneapolis on Saturday for the first-ever Indigenous Women's March.

"We don't have to be a victim anymore. We can speak out, and we have advocates and programs out there and groups to help women out," said Justina Castro, of Minneapolis, who joined the march. "They don't have to be trapped; we don't have to have any more deaths." 

Castro was at the march with her friend Monica Bunce — and both knew Native women who went missing or were murdered. Castro's niece was abducted and eventually made it back home, but she was so scarred by the experience that she eventually took her own life. Bunce's cousin was kidnapped and murdered. The person who did it was never caught, she said. 

"We don't have to be silent about that anymore," Bunce said. 

The march was inspired by the nationwide movement to bring attention to the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. In Minnesota, lawmakers are considering a bill to create a task force to dig into the high rates of abduction and murder within the Native American community. 

Around 100 people marched took part in the Indigenous Women's March.
About 100 people marched from Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center to the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis during the Indigenous Women's March on Saturday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Part of that effort is aimed at better data collection. Law enforcement agencies don't track the number of missing Native American women in a comprehensive way.

There were 5,712 cases of missing Native American women in the United States in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center, but only 116 of those cases were logged with the U.S. Department of Justice's federal missing person database, NamUs.

Minneapolis has the ninth-highest number of missing Native American women — 20 total — out of 71 urban areas examined in a recent report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. The total number of missing women is likely much higher due to poor data collection, the report notes.

"That's more of a norm in our community than not," said Sharyl WhiteHawk, who was a victim of violence and sexual assault as a child. "But I have hope and I do believe that we are going to turn things around in our community." 

Saturday's march was organized by several volunteers from last year's Franklin Hiawatha homeless encampment, who wanted to recognize women who risked their safety to help place individuals from the encampment into permanent housing. 

The event started with a prayer at the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center in Minneapolis before everyone marched to Little Earth of United Tribes. Organizers said they hope the Indigenous Women's March will become an annual event. 

Dianna Current, who is transgender, said she's been getting more involved with the two-spirit community in Minnesota. She said it was important that organizers included all women in the march. 

"I want my voice to be heard, and I want my voice to be heard with everybody in here," she said. "We're all human and we're all females. I may be transgender but I am a girl."