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Oklahoma City Women's March highlights struggles of indigenous women, need for equality

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Woman and Child (copy)

A woman with a red handprint painted on her face to protest the murder and kidnapping of indigenous women holds her child in front of the state capitol Jan. 20.

During a 43-degree Oklahoma afternoon, crowds began gathering in front of the state Capitol building. A group of indigenous peoples in their bright ribbon skirts smeared red paint on their hands and faces.

Soon, people of many gender identities began to arrive clutching homemade signs with words like, “No more stolen sisters” or “Women belong in all places decisions are being made” scrawled on the front.

Starting at noon on Jan. 20, activists gathered in front of the Oklahoma state Capitol building to show their support and desire for improving women’s rights in the U.S.

The march focused on building opportunities for all women and ending violence against women — indigenous women in particular.

The Oklahoma City march was led by Matriarch, an activist group that promotes the social welfare of Native women through education and community building, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women group, which is a group fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples.

Ayanna Najuma, a human rights activist who has worked with many different groups, said she came to share her experiences as a human rights activist.

“It didn’t ask whether you were female or male, black or white, physically or intellectually challenged. It was a piece of paper that was given to us at birth that said you were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Najuma said.

Najuma said there is no equality until everyone has health care, women have equal pay for equal work and women are able to have equal opportunities. She said she hoped the march and its speeches would be a call to action for everyone to get out and make a difference.

“Following (the Women’s March) on Facebook is not that same as being here today,” Najuma said. “It’s not the same as calling our elected officials and telling them what we want and how we want it.”

Najuma said she has been an activist since she was 7 years old, when she participated in the sit-in at the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City.

“I never thought I would have to stand here 60 years later and talk about equality,” Najuma said, “to throw the word of racism into the trash again and sexism into the trash again in 2019. When is that going to stop?”

Debbie Brooks, an education reform activist, also spoke at the event. Brooks, who spent part of her life as a school principal, said women should be empowered and speak up for themselves.

Brooks talked about a derogatory bumper sticker she encountered a few days before which she said showed a vulgar depiction of a woman, and how she thought it was disgusting that women still had to deal with that lack of respect.

“It’s objectifying our bodies,” Brooks said. “Women demand respect. Are you going to stand up for yourselves? Next time you see that truck are you going to roll down your window and say no?”

Along with discussing troubles all women face every day, the Oklahoma Women’s March chose to highlight the specific troubles of indigenous women and transgender women during the speaking events.

Olivia Gray, director of Osage Nation’s Family Violence Prevention Department, came to the march to discuss violence against women.

“We need to be here for those victims regardless of race, gender identity, addiction status, criminal history, or all those other things that other people use to divide us,” Gray said. “I ask you to be here today for one another.”

Gray specifically wanted to talk about violence against indigenous women, and said indigenous women in America are 84 percent more likely to be physically abused in their lifetime and 56 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

“I would ask all of you to remember who you are. Find your power. Hold on to that power. Especially to my indigenous relatives,” Gray said. “We came from the survivors. We came from the strongest, the fastest, the smartest, we’re here for a reason, and this has to stop today.”

With her four daughters and four granddaughters behind her on stage wearing traditional indigenous ribbon skirts and painted red hand marks over their faces, Gray spoke of building a better world for her granddaughters.

“We know what this world has in store for us. What is not acceptable is what this world has in store for these two,” Gray said, pointing to her two youngest granddaughters. “If something substantial doesn’t happen today, they’re going to live through what the rest of us have lived through.”

Carmen Marie, one of the members of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women group, said their red painted hand represents the blood on the hands of the justice system when violence against indigenous women goes uninvestigated, and the red hand over their mouths symbolized indigenous women being silenced.

“We are looking for society to even out the prioritization of people and we really want to look at the amount of indigenous women, boys and girls this is happening to, especially to transgender women in the indigenous community,” Marie said.

Marie said there is a different way the legal system processes indigenous people’s cases. She said when someone goes missing in Canada and America and they have a “high-risk lifestyle,” which could be include anything from living in poverty to having some sort of addiction, law enforcement treats them as less of a priority.

“There are over 5,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States and yet only 166 are in the national federal record,” Jordan Harmon, planner of the Tulsa Women’s March, said. “Ask yourself what you can do to help racial and criminal justice reform.”

Harmon said that in Tulsa, black people are three times more likely to face police violence than any other group.

“I committed to attend every city council meeting where the public was asking the city council for a public hearing for why this is happening and what the solution is,” Harmon said. “Every council meeting where that item is on the agenda I am going to be there, and when I am there I see a sea of black faces asking the council to take their lives seriously, and I want to see white faces in there next time.”

Brooks ended the event with a call for women to continue making their voices heard.

“In reference to the Helen Reddy song, I am woman, hear me roar. In numbers too big to ignore,” Brooks said. “And I know too much to go back and pretend, 'cause I’ve heard it all before, and I’ve been down on the floor, and nobody is ever going to keep me down again.”

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