Bodies in Public: Endangered Persons in Dangerous Places
CONTENT WARNING: violence against women, unsolved criminal cases, violence against Indigenous women, transphobia, homophobia, femmephobia, bodily harm, street violence.
On June 15th 2018, Jermain Charlo**, (a 23-year-old Indigenous woman and mother of two) disappeared in downtown Missoula, Montana. Since then, Jermain's family, friends and children have gone without answers. How could Jermain go missing in the middle of a busy, downtown public space?
If you're an Indigenous woman in North America, double that.
The disappearance of Jermain Charlo is one of many unsolved cases of Indigenous women in Montana, in the United States and in North America.
It is 2021 and we still don't know what happened to Jermain Charlo, and I'm worried that we never will.
Earlier this year, President Biden's administration stressed a focus on the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women . And while there has been a national day of remembrance and focus instituted (on May 5th), it seems like the world has continued to turn with little traction in cases like Jermain Charlo's.
Native Women's Wilderness—a nonprofit organization that focuses on amplifying the voices of Native Women in the outdoors and on ancestral lands—addresses the issue of MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) through statistics to provide attention to Indigenous persons in the United States: "As of 2016, the National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. Strikingly, the U.S Department of Justice missing persons database has only reported 116 cases. The majority of these murders are committed by non-Native people on Native-owned land" (NWW, 2021).
On their website, is a link to the Urban Indian Health Institute's study of violence against Indigenous women in the United States.
Amongst the organization's numerous findings on the lack of resources and support given to Indigenous women and communities, there also was found to be a lack of attention given to MMIW cases. So much so that "more than 95% of the cases in this study [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls] were never covered by national or international media" (Urban Indian Health Institute).
While what specifically happened to Jermain Charlo that night in 2018 is unknown, she was undoubtedly a victim of femicide or other feminine-coded violence.
Urban Indian Health Institute
Her story and the stories of other feminine persons echo out into the mobilization of movements and organizations like Native Women's Wilderness, the Urban Indian Health Institute, The Lifeguard Group and the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center—who work to defend the stories, rights and safety of feminine presenting (and/or identifying) Indigenous persons.
In thinking about stories like Jermain's, I often circle back to my time at Queen's University. Specifically one moment at a party in my last year. I was speaking to another student (let's call them Alex). They were asking me about the Women's March (because apparently, I was an expert). They asked me what the point was of these protests—or protests about gender in general, when women "aren't treated that badly here" and everything is "literally fine."
It might've been fine for them. Or not.
Who's to say.
And hey, you know, I wish I could have agreed that everything is FINE.
I mean, regardless of how nice and fine and polite Canadians are and Canada seems — it's not the truth. If it was, people wouldn't be gathering in the streets, resisting the status quo, screaming "hey, this system is fundamentally flawed." It is, if anything, the opposite of fine.
If I could go back to that conversation with "Alex", I think I would ask them why they thought people protest. Because sometimes, I wonder if we miss the point.
Protest, assembly, rallying together are not examples of over-dramatizations.
They occur because over and over again our society (and its public spaces) has proven itself to be threatening, precarious and un-navigational for many racialized, gendered, nonconforming, disabled or otherwise differing bodies.
Through protest, persons are mobilized towards change.
Through protest, stories are shared and memories are preserved.
Through protest, communities withstand erasure.
Because without it, people go missing and no one talks about it. People are victimized on the street and it isn't a "big deal."
Protest happens when people are driven to stand up for others— because the system that is "intended" to protect all of us actually manifests in something that perpetuates threatening public and private environments.
In the public sphere, feminine bodies much like Jermain Charlo's (and many others) are stared at, scrutinized and sexualized all in the name of male-dominated WCHS mindsets.
According to the 2015 U.S Transgender survey "46% of respondents were verbally harassed [in public spaces] and 9% were physically attacked because of being transgender. During that same time period."
Which is exactly the (rambly and tired) point I'm trying to make.
Bodies that are not perceived as white, straight, able-bodied or "appropriately" (cis) gendered performing persons must navigate public spaces in a very different way.
In my dissertation, I want to keep asking why it is so challenging and precarious for feminine bodies to perform in public spaces. Not only that, but I want to start talking to organizations that focus on supporting persons who may face these dangers in public settings and perhaps even those who are directly affected by these issues.
I know that this work sounds inherently negative and perhaps even fatalistic. But maybe that's important. Maybe it can lead to something else like hope down the line. Eventually. But not right now.
To learn about, and spread awareness of Jermain Charlo's case, take a listen to the podcast Stolen: The Search for Jermain on Spotify.
**AMENDMENT - it is important to note that Jermain Charlo has also been a victim of domestic violence. This level of intimate partner violence is believed to have affected the case. Although, it is unknown whether or not Jermain went missing at the hands of public or private violence. For full details please see the podcast above.