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'We have learned to be silent'

Aug 7, 2019 Steve Peck, Publisher

Education, effective role modeling, and resisting societal and institutional pressure to remain silent on critical issues were central themes aired at a public panel discussion among six American Indian women at the Riverton Branch Library.

Titled "The Work to Be Done: Women of the Wind River Reservation Speak Their Minds," the session brought together women of different ages, occupations and life experiences who responded to a series of questions first from a moderator and then from the audience of about 40 people.

Voices

The urgency for women's voices to be heard was a recurring topic.

"We have learned to be silent," Eastern Shoshone Business Council member Karen Snyder of Fort Washakie said.

She said it's "important for women to find a voice" as they worked to gain equal footing in both the tribal and larger societal structure that has de-valued their views and experiences.

"That starts with learning to stand up for yourself," said Dara Perez-Good Voice Elk.

She works as a reporter and referred often to her studies in psychology that helped her to understand that "trauma is passed down in different ways" to women who don't always necessarily understand, or even recognize, the effects of trauma in their lives.

"Learning to stand up for yourself" can be difficult for someone who has been expected to do the opposite, even unwittingly trained to stay silent, the panelist added. She suggested listening to people in positions of authority and influence as a gateway toward learning to express oneself.

"Listening now can make you better able to talk later," she said. "Do that, "and you will have the power."

Justice

North Dakota native Danielle SeeWalker works in Denver for a large company as she writes and researches a freelance "passion project" she has titled the"Red Road Project." Through that work, she said, she intends to document the lives, circumstances and reality of what it means to be an American Indian in the 21st-century, using storytelling, art and journalism.

For the library panel, she stressed the concept of "gaining justice" for American Indian women, not just in the legal sense but in the societal one.

She told the audience that she felt progress toward a more just existence for women is "gaining momentum, but a lot of work remains to be done."

Governor's challenger

Panelist Lynette Grey Bull is the founder and director of "Not Our Native Daughters," an organization emphasizing awareness, prevention, and justice related to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, which was the focus of an earlier meeting at Riverton City Park during the spring.

It was Grey Bull who challenged Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon face-to-face at a gathering in Cheyenne and urged him to create a statewide effort under the auspices of the governor's office to address the problem.

Gordon subsequently has created a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women.

The late-July session in Riverton was a precursor to a statewide conference launched by the new task force, on which Grey Bull serves.

During last month's panel Grey Bull said her research on the issue has revealed "heartbreaking stories and statistics" about lives lost, lives ruined, and families disrupted permanently by unresolved and unpunished crimes against American Indian women.

She works as a victims advocate, counseling and educating clients about what she called "our cultural capacity to empower young women" as the key to beginning to resolve both the actual incidence of human trafficking and murder of indigenous women and the effects of those crimes on others.

Next generation

The youngest member of the on-stage panel was Gabrielle St. Clair, a recent graduate of Lander Valley High School who intends to enroll this fall at Central Wyoming College. As a younger student she attended schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The enrolled Eastern Shoshone tribal member said she felt some of the issues raised by the older women do not loom so large in her life, and she credited their efforts and those of other strong women in the community for that progress.

"As a teen, I see good role models for leadership" both on the stage at the library and in her larger life, she said.

Maintaining that level of commitment and guidance will be important to her, she added.

St. Clair echoed the thoughts of other panelists in stressing the importance of listening to people with experience on issues that matter to her in order to gain knowledge.

"These role models are important to me, and I hope to be one myself," she said.

State Rep. Andrea Clifford, a Democrat serving her first term in the Wyoming House representing District 33, said she understands all too well that "speaking up can be scary" for women who are not accustomed to it.

She said women who want to make progress in social injustice equality need to hold themselves to a higher standard, because they will the focus of added attention.

"We are always learning," she said.

As a lawmaker gaining experience in Cheyenne, she said it has been important to "listen, observe, and be a student of the process." Clifford said this practice can help any woman in any endeavor.

Although she occasionally has felt deluged with information related to the task of being a legislator, Clifford said gaining data and other information, listening to others, asking questions, and staying in a learning frame of mind are keys to being effective and gaining respect.

It can be hard, she said, "but if you do it responsibly and respectfully, people will come to respect you and see you as responsible."

The library panel was moderated by Taylar Stagner, a Riverton High School graduate and student at the University of Wyoming who is about to embark on a graduate program at Bowling Green University in Ohio.

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