She's Gone Missing: A Talk with Heather Bruegl | Social Justice | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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She's Gone Missing: A Talk with Heather Bruegl 

The Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Last Updated: 10/29/2021 12:34 pm

click to enlarge Heather Bruegl
  • Heather Bruegl

When 22-year-old Long Island native Gabby Petito went missing in early September, it made headlines across the country. When her strangled body was found in Wyoming 8 days later, the news coverage only intensified. One thing to note: Gabby Petito was white. This point is not lost on Heather Bruegl, director of education at Forge Project and a member of the Oneida/Stockbridge Munsee Nation. Native American women are more than twice as likely to experience violence than any other demographic in the US. One in three Indigenous women is sexually assaulted during her life, and 67 percent of these assaults are perpetrated by other races. Cases of violence against Indigenous women rarely make headlines, however. In her talk “She’s Gone Missing(The Epidemic You Don’t Hear About): Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,”Bruegl examines this epidemic of violence at Hudson Hall in Hudson on November 5 at 6pm.

I spoke with Bruegl about the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women as well as Forge Project, a new initiative to support Indigenous leaders in culture, education, food security, and land justice in Columbia County.

What is Forge Project and how does it come about?

Heather Bruegl: Forge Project is an Indigenous-led organization focusing on those in the Indigenous communities who work in land justice, climate activism, cultural awareness—"like just all these amazing things that are going on in Indian country. And we support those artists and those activists by a fellowship where they can work in their communities to continue to do good across Indian country and in their communities. But also we support Indigenous artists, living contemporary Indigenous artists, because they don't get the same type of coverage that non-Indigenous artists get. So we want to bring awareness to that as well, having a collection of art that is a lending and teaching collection so it's not just a collection of art that stays at Forge. It's meant to go out into the world so that people can look at it and learn from it.

And then also forming think tanks in groups around MMIW [missing and murdered Indigenous women] and land back and, language revitalization and all of these great things that we can do with the resources that we have in order to help bring awareness to things that are going on in Indian country.

click to enlarge One of the Ai Weiwei-designed buildings at Forge Project.
  • One of the Ai Weiwei-designed buildings at Forge Project.

Why is Forge in upstate New York?

Heather Bruegl: Forge is in upstate New York because the house that houses our fellowships and our art collection was designed by Ai Weiwei and that's where the house that he designed is located. One of our founders, Becky Gochman, purchased that home and it just so happens to be located on the ancestral homelands of the Mohican people, part of my ancestors, and that community today is known as the Stockbridge-Munsee community. And they're located in Bowler, Wisconsin.

You describe yourself as an “accidental activist.” Why do you describe yourself that way?

Heather Bruegl: Because I didn't start out doing this work to be an activist or to march or protest or anything like that. I'm a historian by training. So I wanted to use that to educate the world more about Indigenous history. It turned out in the course of doing that, it was bringing awareness to Indigenous causes. So whether that's stopping pipelines or bringing awareness to the missing and murdered Indigenous women's epidemic, or raising awareness of the issues that surround the Indian Child Welfare Act and how that's being threatened. So in the course of educating people, you're bringing awareness to it, people want to do stuff and they want to know how they can be involved and help more. The activism form of this work kind of really was an accident. It wasn't meant to be that, but little did I know that by educating people, it was really a form of activism that I didn't even see coming.

Can you explain the context of the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women? What's the history here?

Heather Bruegl: You could easily go back to the history of MMIW starting with colonialism, when settlers came across. One of the first known victims of MMIW is Pocahontas. You learn about her in history class, but they don't tell you she was 10 years old. You think she's much older because it's romanticized, it's mythologized. She saved the life of John Smith and there was this great love affair and blah, blah, blah. But what they don't tell you: she was 10 years old. She was held captive on an English ship. When she came off that ship, she was pregnant. She was forced to give up her Indigenous ways and she ends up dying in England after they parade her around as enlightened savage. And she never sees her homelands again.

And there's this purity complex. If you are a non-white woman, if you're black or brown, it's easy to be looked at as less-than. We did it with enslaved women that were brought over from Africa. We did it with the Indigenous women that were here already on this continent. You're looked at as less-thans, you're treated as less-thans. So you go missing, nobody cares; you're assaulted, nobody cares. That's how this epidemic, I think, has stayed in the shadows for so long, because nobody cares when an Indigenous woman goes missing, when a black or a brown woman goes missing, because there's so much historically put on us that our voices just aren't heard.

Think of the tragic case of Gabby Petito, who went missing—this young, white woman. From the time she was reported missing to the time that her remains were found was eight days. And we have women in our communities and across Indian country who have been missing for eight years or more. There's no end in sight, really. And so I think it's important to talk about those discrepancies and the inequality that happens when it comes to an Indigenous woman being missing, as opposed to a white woman who goes missing, not to say that that case is not tragic. It is tragic. It's very sad. A young girl lost her life and that should not have happened, but the nation came together. It became a case of the nation looking for her, the nation lost her. Whereas when an Indigenous woman goes missing, sometimes you can't even get the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] police or the FBI involved until a certain amount of time goes by.

What can people do to aid and support the effort to bring more attention to MMIW?

Heather Bruegl: People can educate themselves about it and they can become just as angry about when an Indigenous woman goes missing as a young white woman. Then, when a non-Indigenous woman goes missing, have that same passion and have that same fight for those women as well. I think that's one thing that can happen. I think also putting pressure on your representatives, whether that is state representatives or your national representatives to pass and support laws that protect Indigenous women.

I think we're going to see hopefully some changes with Deb Haaland at the Department of the Interior. I'm very grateful for Deb Haaland being in her position because she knows what's going on in Indian country. It's something as an Indigenous woman, you think about almost every day. I don't live in a high crime area, but I am constantly aware of my surroundings. And I text my husband constantly when I'm going to the grocery store or leaving the grocery store just so he knows where I'm at. With Deb Haaland leading at Interior, I think we'll see some changes because she gets it and I think it's important. If you're not an Indigenous person it's hard to get, but I think you can educate yourself about it. You can learn more about it and understand that this isn't just a history that's popped up in recent times. This is a history that is older than the founding of the United States.

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Artist Angela Dufresne will speak about her multidisciplinary practice as part of the Agnes Rindge Claflin Lecture Series @ Vassar College

Artist Angela Dufresne will speak about her multidisciplinary practice as part of the Agnes Rindge Claflin Lecture Series

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