This morning we live in a ComfortInn in southeastern Kansas, a state I previously knew only by Dorothy’s departure from it. I never visited Missouri before yesterday, nor South Dakota and Wyoming before last week. Every day my experience of the country expands into unfamiliar dimensions. By tonight we will live a few hundred miles northeast of here.
Within the extreme fluidity of this trip–the necessary commitment to transition, present-mindedness, and flexibility–there remains someone I’ve thought about every day since we met her at the workshop in Glasgow, MT. Toni Plummer-Alvernaz welcomed us to her organization that day with her daughter and her mother also present.
To make more people aware of the courage and wisdom of every survivor we meet is a foundational intention of the Women’s Wisdom Initiative. I begin to understand more deeply how each person in shelter–including those who work there–is a miracle, an absolute pillar of endurance, and a potent source of inspiration. They are the healers. The stories of their pasts dare us to confront the reality of widespread violence as a cultural legacy. Summoning the strength to sit and accept that (rather than victim-blaming, or finding a million other reasons to deny/ignore it) is part of the healing process for both survivor and society. The survivors can alert us to the places in our communities that need our attention if we all want to enjoy safety and peace. We must commit ourselves to listening, which isn’t simply hearing what is said. Sometimes we remain ignorant to the whole story unless we interpret silence. We must be alert to omission, for within that murky space lie darker-toned truths.
I want to share Toni’s story and the murky places it led me. She is the Executive Director of the Montana Native Women’s Coalition (mtnativewomen.org). One of seven children, she grew up in Glasgow, MT, population 3,200. Bullies targeted her in elementary school, inflicting both physical and emotional abuse as punishment for her native descent. She told us that she devoted her life to combating violence (just like the superheroes of our comic books) when she was 21 years old. She returned to Glasgow after leaving for some years and began doing the work she continues now, sheltering and supporting all who seek refuge from violence there and in surrounding communities.
The passage of time has not tempered the racism and sexism of her neighbors. Toni related how 1) her organization, whose express mission is “to improve urban and rural Native American community responses to victims of domestic and sexual violence,” not only receives zero support from the community, but that she and her co-workers are often slandered and the survivors in shelter accused of “wanting” to be abused, 2) men in their community occasionally tell her husband to “quiet his old lady down,” 3) Toni’s work and existence continue to offend her fellow citizens to the extent that they express their anger via hate crimes against her: slashing her car tires, keying her doors, and once shooting in the door of her home, and 4) the sons of her elementary tormentors followed their fathers’ footsteps, bullying Toni’s daughter at school one generation later. According to Toni, people in her town do not want her in a position of authority because she is a woman, because she is Native American, and because they prefer not to acknowledge the issue of domestic violence that is rampant in their community.
And while I can share these details of her life in a simple list, it remains more difficult to convey in words Toni’s energy. She was humble, caring, kind, alert, and so deeply honest. She commented calmly about injustices that quickened my heartbeat and coated my throat with the rusty taste of anger. Her stories provoked incredulity in us, but her demeanor remained even, undramatic, unresentful. She spoke of her faith in the prevalence of goodness. Her faith was her strength.
Meeting Toni in the context of that workshop left my mind’s jaws sore from so much to chew on. I pondered the recipe for her resilience. I tried to imagine how hard it would have been to return to a place where she knew hate and intolerance awaited her, to do work she knew would consume all the strength and endurance she could muster. Mostly I wondered about the origins of racism in her community and how it continues to reign today.
Starting with the information we gleaned about Glasgow from conversation with Toni, I began to resolve that question. She said that many people never leave that community; the families there descend from homesteaders who settled six or seven generations earlier. And despite the town’s proximity to both the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations, the 2010 census reported 91.5% of the population was White, 4.5% Indian.
The internets offered other insights. The Wikipedia page about Glasgow provides a paragraph or two on the history of Indian people in the area, stating that northeastern Montana was occupied for hundreds of years by Nakoda, Lakota, and Dakota tribes. It gives a vague outline of a number of events that eventually led to 1888′s “formation of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and the removal of tribes from the Glasgow area.” Removal how? How did the area’s populations change from wholly Indian in the 1600s, to its present status of White towns and Indian reservations? The town of Glasgow has its own website which includes a page on the area’s history, too, but its author excludes any mention of a past beyond the 1880s, nor inhabitants beside US settlers.
A paper called “Montana Indians: their history and location” provides another perspective. Published by the Montana Office of Public Instruction in 2009, it gives a comprehensive history of that land’s alternating occupants and the changing currents of power that led to the aforementioned removal of indigenous people from the state. I will paraphrase the history class I found within it, for it most thoroughly cleared up my curiosity. The 250 years between the mid 1600s and the turn of the 20th century saw intense tribal warfare over land disputes; the entanglement of British & US forces within these ongoing tribal disagreements as the foreign nations began marking their own boundaries on the land; further division within the tribal world as some groups allied with US forces; the beginning of trading in the area, which was a seemingly more civil manner of land acquisition for the settlers, but ultimately led to Indian peoples’ increased dependence on European tools and the spread of epidemic disease as they had more contact with the foreigners. All of these factors worked to slowly diminish the native populations in the area. Treaties between tribal leaders and US forces took place throughout the 1800s, but they were rarely consensual and often broken. Tribal people were caught in the storm of the US Civil War, forced to fight or flee. Their numbers dwindled and dependence on the US increased (the buffalo was hunted to near extinction at this time). The author relates,
“After much suffering, the chiefs of the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Up- per and Lower Nakodas and Dakotas, along with a few refugee Lakota bands, signed an agreement in 1887. They surrendered about 17.5 mil- lion acres and accepted smaller reservations. The next year Congress ratified the agreement creating the Ft. Peck Reservation with its present boundaries” (McGeshick, 42).
To me, attempting to understand the history of these communities empowers and even protects me. It is very difficult to drop into a place like Glasgow, to hear about racism and hatred feeding violence there, and then to leave, aware of how few resources are locally available for anyone who wants to challenge that oppression. But it helps me to know that people think and act the way they do there for a reason, not because human beings are inherently selfish, aggressive, and cruel. We are most certainly not. It makes sense to me that White supremacist attitudes took root in Glasgow and the surrounding land because the white people who settled there did so in the context of a struggle for their survival, under the direction of a government that repeatedly disrespected and disregarded native people, amidst a war over land in which Indian was perceived as enemy. Enemies = evil others. A belief in the inferiority of the tribal culture legitimized its extermination by a mass of colonizers. Those beliefs are a relic of that time of desperation and survival, the original era of manifest destiny, and they have been inherited by each new generation, apparently without critique.
We see in every workshop that violent behavior is hereditary. A woman in Casper, Wyoming, said that in her family, hitting demonstrated love. She inherited this language of nurture as a girl and went on to teach her own children. She did not understand the dysfunction of such a model, she said, until moving into shelter and participating in group counseling sessions. Now she considers herself humble, calm, and forgiving.
Survivors like this woman and Toni prove that change is possible. Their lives exemplify how people can break out from violent belief systems to choose peace instead. Toni might have turned hard and hateful in response to the animosity she endured in her childhood (and continues to elicit). Or she might have conformed to racist attitudes in order to be accepted there, or turned to drugs to disconnect from pain, or moved away and never looked back, or killed herself, as tribal people do more frequently than members of any other race in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control/Prevention. Instead she made a career of sheltering abuse victims (of all races and genders, but predominantly white females) and providing resources for safety and justice in a town where she is NOT safe and injustice pants at her heels like a rabid puppy. Ahhhh it’s amazing. I will feel forever grateful to Toni for allowing us into her organization that is a haven of safety, for sharing her story and opinions, for the questions she motivated me to ask, and for her fearless heart. Hers is a life to celebrate.
McGeshick, Joseph. Montana . Office of Public Instructiom. Montana Indians: their history and location. Helena: , 2009. Web. <http://opi.mt.gov/pdf/indianed/resources/MTIndiansHistoryLocation.pdf