First seen in: The Montana Kaimin
UM student Marita Growing Thunder spent her spring break walking 80 miles by foot through the Flathead Valley to raise awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women. This was the second year of the annual “Save Our Sisters” walk she started.
On the final morning of the four-day walk, a group of 10 people stood on the side of Highway 93, their bright ribbon skirts and beaded jewelry standing out in the morning sun. Growing Thunder, a freshman at the University, wore a ribbon skirt she made to commemorate a young woman found murdered in the fields next to the highway.
After spending three days on the highway shoulder that cuts through the Flathead valley next to the Mission Mountain range, passing roadkill and braving bad weather, the group had only 20 miles of walking left. Growing Thunder’s mother, Shannon Ahhaitty, gave tobacco to everyone for a traditional offering.
Ahhaitty said she and her daughter were “beyond tired and beyond humbled” by the last three days of walking. She thanked everyone for their support, including those who had only walked a mile.
“This is a crisis and it is big enough for everybody to hold,” Ahhaitty said. The walkers were tired but Ahhaitty said that they would finish even if they had to roll each other to the end. The “Save Our Sisters” walkers finished the last 20 miles successfully Wednesday night.
Growing Thunder started the “Save Our Sisters” walk last year, while spending her senior year of high school wearing hand sewn ribbon dresses and skirts to school to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women. The larger movement, which began in Canada, is known on social media by the hashtag #MMIW.
The walk is meant to draw attention to this largely unnoticed issue. Thousands of indigenous women are missing or murdered in the United States, but data is sparse and poorly tracked. According to the National Institute of Justice, more than four in five indigenous women experience violence in their lifetimes, including sexual and physical violence, with over one in three native women experiencing violence in 2015.
Growing Thunder had tears in her eyes as she began the walk. “This has become her life, to fight for missing and murdered indigenous women,” her mother told the group.
The group began the walk down the highway to drum music as cars honked in support. The music changed to “Thriller“ by Michael Jackson. Laughs were shared amongst the walkers, as well as some sad stories about their own experiences.
For Growing Thunder, the walk gives her and others the chance to talk about an issue affecting their families, friends, and communities. “For once we can actually morn,” Growing Thunder said.
Ivy MacDonald, a filmmaker from Browning, Montana, who walked with the group, said that “[the walk] is just another example of how resilient native people are, coming together.”
“Being a native woman, this is an everyday thing for us,” she said. “It’s just important for people to know native women are still here and we are still going through the struggles of historical trauma”
Last year, Growing Thunder said her feet were covered in blisters from the walk. This year she said she didn’t have a single one. She has also learned how to take breaks and stretch since the walk last year. Growing Thunder plans to walk again next year and continue to raise awareness for missing indigenous women.
“Missing and murdered indigenous women is our day to day life. It’s not just the hashtag. It can affect anyone,” Growing Thunder said.