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Jamie Yellowtail

Julisa Lopez  

Advocating for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Jamie Yellowtail, Psychology Graduate Student, University of Oregon
Julisa Lopez, PhD Graduate Student, University of Michigan 

SPSSI Hill Day 2020 brought numerous psychologists and psychologists in training together to advocate for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization and the provisions that help addresses the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The day began with a presentation from SPSSI president, Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, discussing her research connecting bias against Native people to the invisibility and the minimization of racism Native people experience.?Sarah Mancoll went on to present information on VAWA reauthorization, including the provisions in the Diane Feinstein (D-CA) version of the bill that give tribal authorities jurisdiction over sex crimes involving non-Natives on tribal lands. These provisions are a crucial component in reducing the high rates of violence Native women and girls experience at the hands of inter-racial perpetrators and the SPSSI team prepared to advocate for these provisions with legislators on the hill.  

The majority of legislative staff I encountered were friendly and receptive to our SPSSI message. I even met with two Native women staff members serving as advisors to their legislators for Native issues, including the MMIWG crisis. They came to our meetings prepared with legislative action and positions on all issues indigenous. They also expressed interest in our work as social psychologists to help inform and support future legislation. I am so proud of these women and their advocacy work on behalf of our tribal communities. I left our meetings feeling inspired and grateful for these young Native leaders.  

These feelings, however, were quickly squandered after meeting with staffers representing legislators that were not supportive of the Feinstein VAWA bill. In fact, I had some difficult conversations that revealed underlying negative stereotypes about Native people, reinforcing victim blaming towards MMIWG. I listened to these hurtful and frustrating statements in offices decorated with tribal regalia, and in one meeting, a buffalo robe gifted to a legislator from my tribe as well as a painting of White Frog, my brother’s namesake. I would quickly correct and combat these perceptions with data and research, communicating the high rates of inter-racial violence experienced by Native women and ultimately how increased victim blaming of MMIWG impacts support for addressing the crisis. 

I felt frustrated and exhausted walking out of these meetings. I thought about Selena Not Afraid, a young girl in my community whose body was found just three days before my arrival to DC. I thought about the collective mourning my community was experiencing and the sense of hopelessness over protecting our women and girls. These legislators are making life saving decisions for our communities. Decisions that could save the lives of more women and girls like Selena Not Afraid, Hannah Harris, and Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, yet they hold truly dangerous perceptions that trivialize the urgency of the MMIWG crisis. I am thankful for the opportunity to participate in SPSSI Hill Day as the experience revealed just how much work needs to be done to understand the underlying psychological constructs contributing to this violence, to the biases that people, including policy-makers on the Hill, hold, and to enhance advocacy for our stolen sisters.  

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