The Tunnel of Oppression exhibit at the University of Montana was designed to immerse us in the experiences of those who are oppressed and abused based on their particular identities or circumstances. Into these rooms I, of course, brought my own identity—I am a white queer non-binary human—and my experiences were informed by (and limited by) this. The Tunnel of Oppression attempted to experientially answer these questions: What is it like to be a woman walking down the street? A trans person seeking healthcare? A person walking into a women’s and family health center? I walked through a mock parking lot outside of a medical center, told I was going in for contraception, and was met with screams: I was a filthy slut, I was dirty, I was worthless, I was nothing. This is where I began to feel overwhelmed by the violence and hatred in the world, how strongly some individuals feel about others’ rights to make their own choices, to be free, even to be alive.
In the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) room, the question posed was this: what do Indigenous women experience when living in a community suddenly overrun with oil workers from a nearby man camp?
At the entrance to the room, there was a table with flowers. We were told to take one in order to place it on the memorial. At first, I did not understand what was playing over the speakers. Muffled voices of men. Laughing. It was the sound of a crowded bar at a man camp. “Man camps” are communities of thousands of mostly-male oil workers that appear almost overnight to profit from the booming oil industry, often on or near Reservations that have little legal protection to offer their women—who are already 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted in their lives. The Atlantic reported: “In 2012, the tribal police department reported more murders, fatal accidents, sexual assaults, domestic disputes, drug busts, gun threats, and human trafficking cases than in any year before. The surrounding counties offer similar reports. But there is one essential difference between Fort Berthold and the rest of North Dakota: The reservation’s population has more than doubled with an influx of non-Indian oil workers—over whom the tribe has little legal control.”
So we were greeted by the sound of drunk men who had moved in to take oil from the Earth. These men are empowered to take what they want — are hired to take what they want — from the land, from the Indigenous communities their man camps are near, from Native women’s security, bodies, lives. This sound, even in an exhibit, brought me to tears. For too many Indigenous women, this sound has been the preamble to abuse. To rape. To death.
I entered the room and there was a wall filled with faces of missing Indigenous women. On the floor, two bodies wrapped in white sheets, smeared with blood, ropes binding the neck and chest and ankles. I imagined these Indigenous women, their faces covered now, taken from their communities by entitled and violent men, beaten, raped, killed. Tied up in white as though in a garbage bag, to be disposed of. Preyed upon by men who have no respect for humanity, for Indigenous land, for Indigenous women’s bodies, for the Earth’s water. The voices and lives of thousands of Indigenous women have been violently extinguished in this way.
And yet, in a continuation of its history of genocide and abuse against Indigenous people, the United States government has given little attention to this epidemic of violence against Indigenous Women. In an interview with the High Country News, Eve Reyes-Aguirre, an Izkaloteka Mexican woman running for Senate in Arizona, said, “If this was a white woman’s issue, if there were white women murdered and missing on this level, this would be a national issue. Something would be done about it.”