BEMIDJI -- Almost everyone walking on Friday had a name to say or a picture to show -- almost everyone had a story to tell.
Natasha Kingbird told the story of 35-year-old Krista Fisherman from Redby, who was stabbed in a Bemidji parking lot in 2015. Francine Jackson-Senogles told the story of her 19-year-old niece, Jojo Boswell, who was never heard from again after she walked out of the Steele County Jail in Owatonna in 2011.
And then, there were all the others.
Hundreds of men, women, and children walked from the Northwest Indian Community Development Center to Bemidji State University on Friday during the fourth annual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s March. The march is meant to bring attention to the disproportionate amount of violence that is perpetrated against Native women.
Those who came to the march held up poster boards with pictures of women on them. Many women walked along the road with a red handprint painted over their mouths and cheeks. A couple marchers walked while carrying rods with dresses hung on them.
“When we think about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and people, it means a lot of things,” said Simone Senogles of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who spoke at the event. “It’s those who are kidnapped, those who are trafficked, those who are taken by strangers, those who are hurt by loved ones. It’s the things that happen in our families; it’s the things that happen systemically.”
Organizers of the march prepared the following song for the event:
In addition to Senogles, a number of other activists spoke about the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. One of those who stood up to speak was Bemidji seventh-grader Karmalynn Marshall, who said she was suspended from school recently along with two other students for painting a red handprint across their mouth and cheeks.
The red handprint has largely become synonymous with the issue of abused Native women.
"I shouldn't be told that I have to take it off," Marshall said. "I'm wearing the red handprint for my people and for all the missing and murdered Indigenous women."
Marshall said she and the two other students were told the paint was gang related and that they needed to remove it. When they didn’t, they were allegedly suspended.
For more on the MMIW crisis, read recent stories published in the Pioneer:
Tommy Tomahawk spoke on the stage with Marshall, describing himself as "one of the parents that brought this to light." Leech Lake Nation Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. and Red Lake Nation Tribal Secretary Sam Strong also spoke in support of the girls. Tomahawk said they were trying to organize a press conference on the issue to "call out" the school employees who allegedly contributed to the students' suspension.
Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz, however, said the situation did not actually play out as portrayed. Because of privacy issues, he said he couldn't comment specifically whether the three students in question were suspended. However, he did clarify that the school allows expression as long as it's not offensive, distracting to other students or disruptive to the school day.
"We did not suspend anybody for using face paint," Lutz said. "I don't see that as being offensive in any way against anyone else's faith or creed. It draws attention to a very real and very tragic situation that's occurring, and we could use that as a wonderful teachable moment to let our staff and students become more aware of what's happening to many Indigenous women in our society today."
In addition to Bemidji, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women marches happened in many other communities, including in Minneapolis, Duluth and Fargo. The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women cited the U.S. Department of Justice by saying that the murder rate for Native women is 10 times the national average. The Coalition also indicates that violence affects four out of five women.