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Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Review by Michelle LaFlamme

Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Kim Anderson, Maria Campbell and Christi Belcourt, Eds.
University of Alberta Press, 2018

The tragedy of Canada’s missing and murdered women undulates like a sea serpent shattering lives and homes in its wake, perpetually haunting our streets, complicating countless courtrooms with grisly details and animating media frenzies. “The murdered” shift imperceptibly into the unliving and “the missing” claim the space of the undead, holding us deeply in the shadows of the questions driving our worst fears as we struggle to make meaning from this senseless brutality. The historical legacy of racialized violence haunts the imaginations of all women, most especially those of us who claim Indigenous ancestry. In Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the editors Kim Anderson, Maria Campbell and Christi Belcourt ask us once again to come to this valley of grief from a new angle by offering a compilation of insightful essays that clearly have given important solace to the writers themselves.

In 2015, “The Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women documented that fifty separate reports had been written on missing and murdered Indigenous women.” Sickened by statistics and an apathy that has left multiple new cases unsolved, Keetsahnak is dedicated to “spirits of our relatives who continue to guide their families from the spirit world”. The writers use the Cree word for the title which means “Our sisters” and is intended “to show our kinship with the women whose lives form the heart” of this volume. These essays demonstrate the strength and resilience of Indigenous women in offering various regional examples of women’s communities coming together to address the issues of violence against women that bring forth new aspects to the conversation.

The work is divided into four sections: the first, “All Our Relations” offers voices from women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, perspectives from social justice advocates, and accounts of the multigenerational impacts of police apathy, as well as personal reflections from women who still have missing family members. The second, “The Violence of History”, offers a historical and sociological lens to the matter and importantly includes personal histories and draws the link between them and colonial violence. Again, like chapter one, this section offers personal and site-specific essays while theorizing on the larger concerns.

The third section is most courageous and hidden in that it delves into the violence in man camps and the disturbing phenomenon of lateral and non-lateral violence involving two-spirited and trans people, in addition to the missing accounts of violence against Indigenous boys and men including murdered and missing Indigenous men. The final section entitled “Action Always” offers a resilient thread of social justice activism.

Of particular note is the essay making the link between misogyny and traditional stories and how these normalize violence against women in Indigenous communities. In “Generations of Genocide”, Robyn Bourgeois uses statistical data and historical analysis to unpack the ways in which the Canadian nation-state has benefitted from overwhelmingly positioning Indigenous woman in socio-cultural and legal context in ways that would support the colonial goals inherent in the Eurocentric patriarchy. Bourgeois concludes that “scholarly historical analyses make clear that the over-criminalization and under-protection of Indigenous women and girls has long been a pattern of the Canadian justice system.”

Michelle Good’s essay “A Tradition of Violence” asserts that “as Indigenous people and nations, we need to invest in our own solutions to violence in our communities.” A historical overtone is offered when the author states, “[t]he Canadian state has been and continues to be deeply invested in violence in Indigenous women and girls to establish and maintain its national power.” Good argues that “only decolonization and the regeneration of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination can hope to end this violence…violence against Indigenous women and girls is an issue of sovereignty and self-determination.”

In “Honouring Women” Beverly Jacobs offers a very moving essay outlining her personal connection to the legal and social realities involved in doing advocacy work for this demographic. She outlines her own connection to missing and murdered women in her work and her connection to her own life and the spirits of the woman. Anecdotes from the oil fields are shared by Helen Knott in the uncannily titled essay, “Violence and Extraction” that manage to weave together an analysis of the connection between making a living, land, violence, sexism, and racism.

There is a through line in these essays that is expressed in the line “Every time I see a photo of an Indigenous woman or girl who has gone missing, I feel my spirit tighten inside of me.” The author, like many in this volume, shares the visceral and affective impact of murdered and missing women. This is a vitally important part of this collection as the essays are cathartic for the writers and readers—an affective and holistic approach to writing about missing and murdered women that is threaded throughout the essays.

Other new Indigenous voices in this collection offer insights that shift paradigms. Alex Wilson’s “Skirting the Issue: Indigenous Myths, Misses, and Misogyny” addresses the importance of “body sovereignty” in a powerful essay that addresses the underreported issue of the marginalization of trans and two-spirited in the larger discourse of murdered and missing indigenous women. These are difficult things to look at. Another difficult essay “The Moose in the Room: Indigenous Man and Violence Against Women” is written by Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson framing the conversation by asking the question “Why are we uneasy within the Indigenous community to discuss the levels of violence Indigenous men inflict upon Indigenous women?” Innes and Anderson draw a connection between domestic violence, statistics and settler racism, as well as “poverty, substance abuse, and dysfunctional parenting skills—caused by racism and colonial interventions.” At the risk of perpetuating racism and stereotypes, these writers insist that we add this analysis of Indigenous violence towards Indigenous peoples to the analysis: more difficult things to look at.

My family has been deeply and indelibly wounded and we all miss my cousin, Vanessa Buckner who was a victim of the barbershop serial killer. To gain solace and understanding of this trauma I have been writing about this topic and dedicating work to the memory of my murdered cousin since 2006. The most recent distillation of my ideas is entitled, “Re-animating the Un-dead”. I want to write about something else, I want to think about something else, but my life has been changed by the missing and murdered women in Canada: the undulating serpent, like a weetigo, is carnivorous and malevolent, stalking its victims and filling its rapacious hunger for our bodies. I seek new ways of making sense of the horror.

The essays in Keetsahnak outline historical, legal, cultural, philosophical, and psychological perspectives on the topic of missing and murdered women in Canada. Their power is in detailing the affective consequences of living in pain, grief, rage; simultaneously they offer strategic examples of resilience, legal challenges, and paradigm shifts. There is an immediate and personal tone to each essay that provides a transparency to the process and a depth to the volume, reminding us that we have all been affected by the horrors of this reality.

This is a serious and important read for anyone who has been touched by the tragic reality of missing and murdered women. The cover is a beautiful beadwork design on moosehide by Sherry Farrell Racette, and the essays take control of the analysis and conversation, yet are at once accessible and scholarly, making this book an excellent resource for university students taking courses in the fields of sociology, Indigenous Studies, Women Studies or Social Work. The editors close with a reference to the work being done at the community level through anti-violence coalitions, and it offers insightful analysis and critical appraisals, including a report on the process that lead to the publication of this important collection of voices.

Michelle LaFlamme is an educator who was born and raised in traditional unceded Coast Salish territory. Her indigenous roots are her Metis Mother and Creek Father. Her research interests include Canadian Indigenous literature and drama. She is a grandmother of two and rides horses in her down time.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #25