My mother called me on Monday night. She texted me first: “Just checking in.” She does that when she wants to talk but her stubbornness won’t let her call. We visited for over an hour about things happening with each of us and what our weeks are about to look like. As our conversation was winding down, she told me that they found Selena Not Afraid. Selena, the 15-year-old girl who went missing from my high school, my tribe and my community.
My mom told me one of our relatives down in Oklahoma heard the news and called her to check on me as well. She told me the same thing she’s been telling me forever: “Be careful.”
But this time was different. This time my mother’s voice hitched as she told me to watch myself and go nowhere alone. She said she’s more worried about me than ever before. My mom was never the helicopter mom, and though she was always cautious, she was hardly overprotective.
But my mother asked me to call her at least once a week in the next few weeks, something she’s never asked before. Because of the time we are living in, my mother needs to know that I’m OK one to two times per week.
I live in a time when one in three of my friends will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, a statistic that’s already manifested itself in many of our lives. I live in a time where, when a 15-year-old girl I’ve never met goes missing on a road I could drive with my eyes closed, I feel like I’ve lost a little sister. I live in a time when I worry about my 57-year-old mother every time she goes to Billings alone. I live in a time when my friends and I help carry girls home when they are too drunk, because even though we have no idea where they live, we know that they are safer with us than by themselves.
I live in a reality where MMIW is not just a hashtag, not just a trendy acronym and not just an epidemic. I worry about going missing daily. I stress every time I order a Lyft or go out. I know by heart the names and stories of so many women and girls who have gone missing or been killed in this state. I’ve interviewed countless times people who’ve been hit directly by this crisis and I’ve seen the tears activists shed when they talk about why they do the work that they do.
In one of my classes, after Selena was found, my professor shared the story of her aunt who was killed on the Flathead Indian Reservation, crying as she told us her trauma. On Facebook and Twitter, people have flooded their timelines with news about Selena, their own anger and sorrow for her and frustration at not knowing what happened.
I don’t deal with MMIW directly, at least I never thought I did. I don’t consider myself an activist, I personally haven’t lost any family. But I think about it all the time. I think about the girls and where they could possibly be. I think about the families and what they could possibly be feeling. I think about myself and my own loved ones if something ever happened to me.
As an Indigenous woman, MMIW is not something I can think about only when I’m feeling charitable. It’s become part of my identity and yet another reality I must face, another reality I need to look out for. When hearing of another young woman gone missing, my heart can’t help but break a little more at the thought of what may have happened to her while at the same time praying she is found still alive.