Noemi Aidee Tungui Aguilar comes from the Purépecha people of Michoacán, Mexico. She is an activist and an educator, on a journey to celebrate her culture that was nearly wiped out through colonialism.
I met Noemi at a Water Protectors camp near Palisade, Minnesota where she went by the camp name Luna. She traveled there from her home in California to protest the construction of the Line 3 pipeline and to continue her advocacy for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.
We talked about the agricultural work that brought her family from Mexico to the United States, her embrace of and pride in her indigenous culture, and the urgency surrounding the epidemic of violence against indigenous women.
“I’ve reconnected with my roots, going from assimilating for so many years to actually go back to my Homeland, to experience the music, the food, the culture, and to have an actual sense of pride for my indigenous roots, which was something that I never was told was acceptable.
That indigenous culture is beautiful. That wasn’t something that was taught to us. What was taught to us in school was that indigenous people were no more. That indigenous people were extinct.
And so I’ve been on my journey, which has been a very painful, slow, and also beautiful journey. I’m really glad that I still have my grandmother. She still speaks the language. She was one of the last remaining people in our indigenous town that still knew the language. And so they actually brought her to the schools to reteach all the teachers so that they could reteach the kids. And the culture is being preserved. Now that we see that we were at a turning point where our culture was about to be gone because we were almost wiped out through colonialism.
One of the big reasons that I’m out here is because of the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. This is an issue that I had not heard about growing up, not in the way that I hear about it being advocated today from indigenous voices, particularly indigenous women themselves.
I grew up hearing about disappearances in my hometown, and even when I visited Mexico, we would drive and we would see signs along the road that said missing; missing daughter, missing sister, missing son, missing dad and a big reward sign. It was kind of hard to look away. And I always feared that, that might happen to me. I remember growing up having lots of nightmares about it and having lots of conversations as a kid with my parents, where they always made sure that I walked very carefully in my life. I had to walk differently from men. I had to walk differently from even white women because of how I looked. And as a kid, I didn’t really understand. And it wasn’t until I joined Idle No More that I first heard about MMIW with the hashtag MMIW, bringing awareness to this issue.
I’m feeling that call to join because although I’m not indigenous to the so-called U.S., this whole land is connected before borders. And we’re suffering the same struggle down down south of this manmade border. And our struggles are connected, and we need to unite as indigenous women and also as indigenous men and as whole communities. The struggle shouldn’t just land on indigenous women and our emotional labor. It needs to be heard. Our story needs to be heard by everyone, and we all need to be speaking about it and why it’s happening.
There’s a big connection with pipelines and this epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, trans women, and all our relatives. These men camps that get set up when a pipeline is going to be constructed, they bring in hundreds, sometimes thousands of men from outside of the area. And most recently with this line three pipeline, a lot of the men were not taking the pandemic serious. A lot of them, we’re seeing maskless at the height of the pandemic, around our indigenous reservations and homes and communities. And that’s not okay.
There are a lot of men who come in and they are here for a project, but they’re not respecting our indigenous people. A lot of times, indigenous people are treated as a commodity. A lot of indigenous women are currently trafficked and when we’re not seen as humans, it’s so easy for them to do whatever they want to us.
Just yesterday we we went to an MMIW event in Duluth, Minnesota, and we were by the [boat] docs and the women were sharing how there’s a lot of human trafficking that’s happening at the port. And a high number is indigenous women. And a lot of women have gone missing and through storytelling and through sharing of the truth and, and victims coming forward, survivors, we know that a lot of the women have ended up in those waters. And so yesterday we went to drop off some flowers in the water and offer songs and prayer, and just remember them because they shouldn’t be forgotten and their voices were taken away. That’s why we continue this work. So that there’s no more of that.
We all have a role to play in stopping this epidemic. So I talk about it whenever I have an opportunity. I think that’s really important. It doesn’t have to be at a rally. It could be a conversation with your coworkers, or with your family, knowing that a lot of the perpetrators are men. We have to start educating our men around treating us with respect, seeing us as human, and to let indigenous women lead. That is how it was before colonialism in many indigenous communities. They were led by matriarchal systems. And I do think that is how we are going to be able to move forward and heal. But if our women are not here, we can’t lead. If we’re not alive, we can’t lead. We can’t tell our stories. We can’t teach our young kids about the beauties of this world.
One of the big statistics is that native women in the us are murdered more than 10 times the national average, and these statistics don’t include native trans women to spirit or gender nonconforming people.
And we also know that it is a somewhat silent epidemic because the government has not for many, many years, kept track of the numbers. There was no data until indigenous women started to demand it. So we know that the current statistics are actually higher than what the governments and different organizations have. So that is very alarming. That is a very harsh reality we’re living in.
There is some progress. There are people working with their local politicians, and I will say that a lot of those local politicians are indigenous people who are working with communities to pass bills and to bring up this issue in the different committees in Congress and the Senate. We know that Deb Holland was just appointed to the U.S. Interior Department and that she is very vocal about MMIW so people are hopeful. There has been in the recent years, way more data gathering, even through indigenous women who are getting their masters and PhDs. They’re taking the opportunity to be able to research what the actual numbers are and how to best keep our database accurate.
I mean, I don’t want to wait around and find out. I’m just going to keep moving forward and acting. I do have hope. In the work I do, it can sometimes be emotionally draining and it can just break my heart. And sometimes it’s even hard to get out of bed because the statistics are so high that I wonder when it’s going to be me. At the same time, I do have a lot of hope because I see us connecting. I see us using tools such as social media to continue to spread awareness. And I continued to meet indigenous women of all ages who also want to work on these different struggles with me and with other folks in my community. So the work continues and that does give me realistic hope.
I would like people to see us to see indigenous women as leaders, to see us not as commodities, but as strong matrix in our community. I would love to see more spaces for people to heal. I would like to see an intergenerational movement where there is respect among the different groups of people, meaning from our babies to our teens and our adults and our elders. I would like to see a respect and our ability to work together. I would ask our elders to share their wisdom with us because there’s so much that they have been through. And our young people really do need to know those stories, to have that wisdom passed on to them so that they can to move forward with all this knowledge that exists.
I would like indigenous women to see their inner warrior strength. I would like to see all of our communities talking about this epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women, girls, two spirit and all our relatives.
I would like patriarchy to fall and for us to continue unlearning colonial systems and to relearn our roots because they are within us. We are medicine and we need to tap into our inner ancestral wisdom that we carry with us.
And I would like people to recognize that our voices are powerful along with our actions. That we need all of us out here and that we need to put down our egos to do this work because it’s gonna take all of us and we can’t rise if we don’t all rise.”
-When have you felt a sense of pride for your heritage? Was that pride taught or learned over time?
-What is the journey you are on? Who are your guides?
-What do you know of the MMIW movement? (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women)
-What are the social challenges that accompany boom and bust economic cycles?
-How have you spoken up for those whose voices have been taken away?
-What benefits could we realize through rebalancing our patriarchal society?
-Why do you think it has taken so long to compile and track data for MMIW?
-What role would you like to see men more actively assume in the work to end sexual violence?