FOR DECADES, THE movement to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in North America has used a range of strategies to show non-Native people what Native people have known for hundreds of years: Indigenous women and girls, as well as queer, trans, and Two-Spirit people, are disproportionately victims of violence and homicide. Activists have employed a wide range of strategies—social media campaigns, protests, public art displays like The REDress Project—but at the heart of the movement is the work of making the disappeared visible, recording their numbers, finding out what happened, and working to end the violence. For example, the Sisters in Spirit initiative, launched in 2005 by the National Women’s Association of Canada, produced the first national database of missing and murdered Indigenous women. These efforts continue. Subsequent pressure on the Canadian government led to the National Inquiry into MMIWG and, in 2019, the release of a two-volume final report that collected the testimony of over two thousand survivors and families of victims. This report clearly states the root cause of the crisis (colonization), names the problem (“acts of genocide against First Nations, Inuit and Métis girls, women, and 2SLGBTQQIA people”), and calls for a National Action Plan. Three years later, activists continue to pressure and criticize the government for its failure to make any significant progress on its own plan.
Brandi Morin’s memoir, Our Voice of Fire: A Memoir of a Warrior Rising, chronicles one survivor’s efforts to overcome the violence that harms so many Native women. Morin, a Cree/Iroquois/French journalist from Treaty 6 territory in Alberta, Canada, covers Indigenous stories for outlets around the world. Our Voice of Fire is Morin’s first book, and it narrates the process by which she recovered from multiple traumas and became a writer. Like other activists, Morin understands that statistics are important for establishing the problem. She notes that Indigenous women and girls in Canada make up just 4 percent of the population, yet account for 24 percent of female homicide victims. Indigenous women are twelve times more likely to be missing or murdered than any other woman in Canada. Data in the US is equally troubling, though in both countries, many experts agree that these numbers are underreported. In the end, statistics can only take the cause so far; it’s storytelling that shows what this violence means for human lives. To that end, Morin writes honestly and compassionately about the failure of those around her to protect her, as well as her own mistakes and the way that her personal struggles unfolded within a larger historical context. Her narrative provides an important window into an experience that needs far more mainstream attention.
Morin grows up riding horses, climbing hay bales in the barn, and “catching creepy-crawly critters” in western Canada. She is “dazzled” by her beautiful parents, but her happy memories are interspersed with the increasing conflict of her parents’ toxic relationship. While Morin feels loved, she also becomes a target for her parents’ own “inheritance of trauma and violence”—beatings and verbal abuse from her mother, the absences of her alcoholic father. Her beloved grandmother, her Kohkum, provides her with a “steadiness” she can’t find elsewhere, but Kohkum, too, has demons.
Consumed by rage as a young child, Morin “ping-pongs” between her own family, foster homes, and group homes, including a six-month stint in juvenile detention. She experiences various forms of emotional abuse and humiliation in most of these institutional settings. When she runs away from one of the group homes at age twelve, she is trapped in an apartment by strange men and raped; this continues for a week. After she escapes, she returns to the group home and tells her caseworker, whose callous response places the blame back on Morin: “That’s what happens when you take off.” At eighteen, she gives birth to her daughter while “locked up in a psych ward”; shortly thereafter, she begins a pattern of drinking that leads to her own child being placed in a foster home. “The generational cycle was repeating itself,” she writes. “I was lost in the depth of its tidal pulls.”
Morin’s struggle with substance abuse, keeping custody of her children, mental illness (she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as anxiety and depression), and destructive relationships with men echo many of the experiences of Terese Marie Mailhot, a fellow First Nations writer who penned the 2018 memoir Heart Berries. For both authors, writing provides a way out of trauma’s vortex. But their memoirs are different in style as well as in sensibility. In contrast to the lyrical and experimental writing of Heart Berries, Morin’s narrative is more straightforward. Mailhot plays with form—parts of her memoir are narrated as a letter written from an inpatient behavioral health facility—whereas Morin relates the events of her life with the precision of a journalist. Our Voice of Fire has more in common with testimonio, a Latin American genre marked “by the urgency to make public a situation of oppression or injustice and/or of resistance against that same condition,” as scholar Ana Forcinito puts it. It’s no accident that the title of Morin’s memoir begins with our, not my; through telling her own story, she also tells the stories of those who cannot. “I add my voice to those who cry out for justice,” she writes, “the living and the lost.”
Healing is not straightforward. Morin finds that the interventions offered to her—medications, electroshock therapy—are ineffective at best. She comes to discover other tools: a deepening connection to her heritage, her religious faith, a compassionate therapist from her church, and writing. Slowly, she hones the rage that burns inside her into a weapon, a “voice of fire.” Yet neither her personal nor her professional journeys are linear. She works briefly at a community newspaper in Manitoba while raising her two young children, but eight months later, after leaving her boyfriend and moving back to her father’s house in Alberta, she has to give up the job. Ten years later, she digs her way out of a deep depression and works up the courage to walk into another local newspaper room; not quite a year later, a change in management results in her firing. Again and again, successes are followed by obstacles both external and internal, but Morin refuses to give up. She eventually gets more training from the Aboriginal People’s Television Network and, through working as both a staff and a freelance journalist, focuses her reporting on the stories of Indigenous people, including the impact of the extraction industry on the MMIWG crisis. She works to amplify the voices of others, and, in the process, she finds her own.
The global movement to end sexual violence must place the experiences of Native women at its center.
OUR VOICE OF Fire is part of a new wave of memoirs by Native authors confronting sexual violence, trauma, and its aftermath. While there are slightly older memoirs that have explored similar concerns—titles by established authors such as Joy Harjo and Linda Hogan come to mind—writers like Morin, Mailhot, David Tromblay, and Angela Sterritt (whose memoir Unbroken: My Fight for Survival, Hope, and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls is forthcoming in 2023) are adding important narratives that push back against racist Native American stereotypes while exploring the complexities of violence and Indigenous life.
Outside of the memoir genre, there have been several decades of writing about MMIWG, although the number of published texts do not reflect either the size or extent of the problem. Louise Erdrich’s award-winning 2012 novel The Round House put the issue into the mainstream, and a few different anthologies feature the writing of Native authors and scholars, most recently the 2018 collection Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Sisters, which includes first-person narratives. These essay collections connect the dots between theory and lived experience, but as with any collaborative project, they sacrifice a single narrative arc for the work of providing a multivoiced platform.
To close these gaps, some activists have focused on creating archives of first-person narratives; for example, the MMIP Storytelling Project at Seeding Sovereignty produces both videos and a zine featuring the accounts of family members of victims. But even with efforts such as these, it’s clearly past time for these stories to reach a broader readership. Our Voice of Fire tells Morin’s own story as well as the stories of the victims around her, which includes many of her close friends from childhood and adolescence who die as young adults from murder, cancer, and suicide. For her and her community, violence lurks everywhere.
IN THE BEGINNING and End of Rape, scholar and activist Sarah Deer argues that the global movement to end sexual violence must place the experiences of Native women at its center. Any analysis of rape must “wrestle with the dark truths of colonial violence” that provide the context in which Native women experience sexual violence. Case in point: the dysfunction of Morin’s childhood is rooted in the traumatic “loss of identity and family” that occurs when her Kohkum is sent to a government residential school. As an adult, Morin does research on the abuse and violence of these schools, which “were an intentional tool of government-sanctioned Indigenous genocide.” Two generations later, Morin still feels the effects of this familial rupture; to make matters worse, the broken social systems set up for protection are sites of further harm. It’s no wonder, then, that her sexual assault is not the focus of her narrative. While she acknowledges that her rape changes her, intensifying her rage and “threatening to consume” her, it does not occupy the center of the story in the way it does in most rape memoirs.
And yet it is an important part of her story. While the #MeToo movement opened the doors for many victims to share their stories, this is not necessarily the case for everyone. Indigenous women experience sexual assault at much higher rates than other groups of women, but very few of their stories reach a broader audience. Indeed, reporting by journalists such as Mary Annette Pember has found that indifference, racism, and a lack of both accountability and reporting procedures silence many victims in Indian country and beyond. In her 2019 series for Indian Country Today, Pember discovered “high rates of unreported incidents, negative consequences for victims, and a culture of protecting perpetrators,” both Native and non-Native. But in order to “enlarge the mainstream dialogue about rape,” as Deer calls for, these accounts are essential, especially so that antirape activists can understand the role of colonialism. It is also important that those who work to end the MMIWG crisis understand that gender-based violence is deeply interconnected with the continent-wide crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. All of these violences are interconnected, and as so many writers and survivors show us, intergenerational. Testimonies like Morin’s fight to end the cycle.