Image by K. Ho

I Am Still Here: Reflections on #AmINext

A while back there was a social media campaign called “Am I Next?” which aimed to raise  awareness about the numerous murdered and missing Native women in Canada. In solidarity with the campaign, many people changed their Facebook profile picture to a silhouette of a Native woman with a feather in her hair with the words, “am I next?” included in the image. I did not change my profile picture because it was too close to home for me.

I belong to the Kanien’kehá:ka, People of the Flint (Mohawk) Nation of the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian Reservation, Southern Ontario – Turtle Clan. I have lived in Vancouver for just over two decades, moving here just after I turned 20 years old. When I first arrived in this city, I was very young and naive. I was very trusting – too trusting. Because of the nature of my innocence, I had a steep learning curve of the cruel ways of the world outside where I grew up. I had no idea how much danger I was in all the time, how risky it was to go to bars alone and be so accepting of new people. I just loved meeting all types of people. Above all, I believe I was seeking to share a sense of acceptance and understanding.

News coverage named the places serial killer Robert Pickton frequented. Then I realized some of the places I went where right around the corner. One night, I distinctly remember considering going into one of the places he habitually visited. I stood at the door against the wafting smell of stale beer and funk, and got a really bad feeling. I did not step one foot in that place.

It’s funny to think that some places I went weren’t much better. During this period of time, I had close calls with danger, and was the subject of violence by strangers and people I knew. I had to run away from ‘perps’, and was protected by good people that chased away men who were looking to grab or harm me. I was on welfare and lived in one of the hooker hoods in East Vancouver. For the life of me, I couldn’t walk to the bus stop without a “date” trying to get me into his car. Creeping up and pulling over… trying desperately to make eye contact. Those four blocks were long indeed.

Many times, these altercations were aggressive and unrelenting. One day, I snapped. A man in a blue Honda was driving his car behind me slowly as I walked down the sidewalk and harassing me. This was the first time I kicked a car. I raged against the machine! I quickly realized this was effective in deterring men from continuing to elicit sex from me after I had repeatedly refused. From then on, the practice of kicking cars with my ‘gently used’ military boots became a weapon in my arsenal to protect the only thing of value I had: my dignity.

I had no phone of my own at the time because BC Tel required a $200 deposit to open a landline and coming up with that kind of money all at once was an impossible feat. However, there was a pay phone (that’s right we used to have pay phones) at the Mac’s on Dundas and Lakewood St. I couldn’t use the pay phone without men trying to get me to drink or use drugs. “Anything I wanted,” and “come with me…” they would say. Of course there was always a line up for the phone, so I had to endure these advances, while being polite and amiable to the men who sought to destroy me.

One day, I received a neighbourhood newsletter in the mail. In the newsletter, an article warned the community about men preying on young Native girls with the intent of inducing them into sex trade. I thought to myself, ‘no kidding!’ My neighbourhood had a lot of Native families and I worried about other young girls in the area.

Over time, I began to feel that these experiences had degraded my sense of self-sacredness. Every time these things happened, it chipped away the foundation of the good upbringing my mom had provided, and my sacredness as Onkwehonwe woman. Painful experiences are enduring when they alienate you from your understanding of yourself and your place in the world. This is the nature of colonization. Over time, I became more angry and resentful.

Every month I would walk to pick up my welfare cheque in the Hastings and Boundary area. One of those days, I noticed there was a poster with missing women on it. It was one of the first posters produced by the women who started the campaign to find their loved ones. I studied the faces on the poster. Each time I went, I stared at their faces for a long time. As I lingered in front of their images, I felt empathy coupled with loneliness. The poster was a grid of faces, mostly mug shots, of women. As time went on, the faces got smaller as the pictures on the grid increased. I studied the faces and looked out for the women – there were so many. For some reason I didn’t make the connection of danger to myself, but the picture is very clear now.

The very first friend I made in Vancouver was murdered. Her body was dumped North of here, and discovered in a lonely lake. Her name was Kari Ann. She was a very strong young woman, both physically and in determination. What she taught me was how to stand up against our enemies. She showed me by doing it even though it took me a while to employ this lesson.  I can still see her standing up abruptly and getting right into a big man’s face yelling, “SHE TOLD YOU NO!” chest out, shoulders back, with fisted hands. It was awesome.

Kari Ann defended me against jerks who refused to leave me alone.  I never knew she was Native until after she was gone. She never told me. We never talked about being Native. It makes sense now why she was so protective and showed me around Vancouver. I still can’t believe she’s gone. Kari Ann’s murder remains unsolved. When the ones who protect you are murdered – how does this world make any sense?

In later years, I went to my home territory and participated in an assertion of sovereignty event  regarding the Jay Treaty where our people walked from Niagara Falls NY, to Niagara Falls Canada unimpeded. We walked like a parade to Canada and ended up at a park where further cultural festivities unfolded. I came up to a stand with a big poster on it. It was a poster to raise awareness of the missing and murdered women. This poster was even bigger than the last and the images of the women were smaller. So I did what I always do when the poster showed itself to me. I began to study the faces. When I saw Kari Ann’s face I began to cry. I was disturbed. All the memories of her kindness and smiling face flooded in along with harsher memories, all mixed and overwhelming.  She is counted among the murdered and missing ‘Aboriginal’ women. Kari Ann is not just a number to me. She would never have asked, “am I next?”. Kari Ann would have asked “who’s ass can I kick for you?”

A couple years ago, I met a young woman who said her aunt told her she had a Mohawk ancestor when she was a teen. She went on to say how disgruntled she feels because other Native academics won’t even consider her as Native. This also disturbed me. All at once my lived experiences came into my throat and I felt like throwing up (and telling her off!).  You see, being Native is not all feathers and beads, drums and singing. It’s riddled with injustice and lost loved ones. Part of me feels like these kinds of people want to take all the good parts of my culture and identity and wear it like a cloak to further their privilege. It makes me angry and my stomach turns. There are layers and layers of hurt and disempowerment laced into living a Native life in Vancouver and colonial Canada. But there is also so much love and fulfilment too. It was clear that we had very different reference points in regard to identity, but what struck me most was sense of entitlement to the identity. This is one of many interactions I’ve had of this nature and for me, what’s left from these is a deep humiliation I’ve yet to un-pack. Identity appropriation is also colonizing and harmful.

As an Onkwehonwe woman, I was taught not to say or think things that are negative or morbid – it’s not of a Good Mind. This adds another dimension to my weariness about asking the question, “am I next?”.  We never say, especially out loud, things we never want to happen. I won’t ask if I am next, but I will share these experiences to raise awareness. You see…I can’t ask this question because I understand the realities of what ‘Am I next’ are for myself and other Indigenous women. Today, I have three teenage daughters of my own.  Being their mother is the greatest thing in the world. I would have them understand these experiences are attributed to colonization. Racism, sexism and femicide are by-products of systematic disempowerment and dispossession and should not be treated as isolated crimes, as Harper suggests. These are just a few stories. They are real. They are in my heart. These experiences have degraded me on all levels. I have rebuilt myself as many times as I needed to in order to survive – sometimes daily. Academia can’t account for any of this. You can count and you can ask these questions but you can never FEEL what I have shared – only a sense of it.

I would like to end by saying this: I am still here. I will celebrate by thanking my mom for life. I will write “I am still here” on a piece of joss paper and burn it as a letter to my ancestors. It would also say, “I am scared but also brave. I am sacred but vulnerable. I thank you for your continued protection. I trust in you, just tell me what to do next.”

Special thanks to the organizers of the annual memorial march for the murdered and missing native women in Canada, to the creators of the “Am I Next” social media campaign, to the women and girls who have survived such encounters with colonialism and to the ones who are no longer with us.

Francine Burning is a student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts At UBC.  Her research focuses on performance’s role in Indigenous knowledge production, and the continuity of First Nations as a people.