By now, you’ve heard about Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, the three Cleveland, Ohio, women rescued this month after years in captivity. What you haven’t heard is that Amanda Berry is Native American.
According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, there are currently 582 Aboriginal women missing across Canada – and that number increases to thousands if anecdotal reports from relatives and community members are included. There are no stats for missing Aboriginal women in the United States, but it is known that Native American women experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in that country. In this country, data from Statistics Canada show that Aboriginal women aged 25 to 44 are five times more likely to suffer a violent death than non-Aboriginal women.
Most of the missing Aboriginal women in Canada and the U.S. get no media coverage for their cases. However, Berry’s case actually got some publicity, due in part to the effort of Cleveland’s American Indian Centre, whose executive director, Robert Roche, wrote letters to the Cleveland Police Department asking that more attention be paid to the case. The American Indian Centre also sponsored a number of vigils that were well attended by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens of Cleveland.
However, the main reason Berry’s case received any media attention was because of her mother, Louwana Miller. When 16-year-old Berry went missing after finishing her shift at a Cleveland Burger King in April 2003, police considered her just another runaway. Miller knew that wasn’t true, so she hung yellow ribbons on the house, stapled flyers on utility poles, held prayer vigils, and called police and media every month to ask them to do more to find her daughter. Desperate for help, Miller contacted Regina Brett, a columnist at The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s daily newspaper.
A year before Berry’s kidnapping, American media had been saturated with the story of Elizabeth Smart, the Mormon teenager who was kidnapped from her Utah bedroom in the middle of the night. As Brett said this month to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), “[Louwana’s] daughter wasn’t on national TV and it wasn’t getting all the coverage that some of the other kidnappings get.” So Brett wrote several columns about Berry to keep her in the spotlight.
Media like to tell simple stories, with good girls and bad guys. Miller didn’t fit that image.
As Brett wrote in a 2006 column, “[Miller] didn’t act the way moms of missing children do on TV, delicately wiping tears with folded tissues while whispering pleas for help. … Louwana was angry. She chain-smoked Marlboros. She didn’t trust the police, so she put her own phone number on the flyers. She would cuss out the very people who tried to help her, then she would apologize and sob like a baby, tears rolling down her big, puffy cheeks. … She once kicked the FBI out of her house. Then she kicked the police out, too. They weren’t doing enough to find her Mandy. ‘Put my shoe on your foot, then you come back,’ she barked. ‘Get the f— out.’ Only she used the whole word. And they left. That was Louwana.”
Brett told the CJR that “Louwana Miller … wasn’t your typical weepy, sad mom. She wanted to kill somebody for her daughter being missing. And I think the media didn’t know what to do with somebody like Louwana because she didn’t fit the stereotype. And so I think, in some ways, Amanda didn’t show up on the radar screen for people right away.”
Miller’s tough exterior is characteristic of many Aboriginal women, who survived the terrifying events of colonization and continue to survive daily experiences of violence, poverty, and racism by developing resilient behaviours. Becoming resilient, however, is not the same as healing. Miller had no positive coping mechanisms to deal with the grief created by her daughter’s disappearance. According to Brett, “[Louwana] was tough until the pain ate away all her toughness. She went from beer to liquor but nothing filled the hole Mandy left. In the end, Louwana wasted away, dropped to 87 pounds. When she died in 2006, she was only 43 years old. The doctor called it heart failure. We knew better. Louwana died of a broken heart.”
Aboriginal communities exist in a delicate balance: tough but broken, angry but suffering from extreme grief. Although the trauma of colonization has been handed down through the generations, so too have the resiliencies that have enabled Aboriginal peoples to survive.
In her May 7 Plain Dealer column, published just after Berry, DeJesus, and Knight were found, Brett wrote that “Louwana would be proud to know her little girl was a fighter like her. … It was Amanda who broke free, who crawled out of that broken door and ran to a phone to call the police to free herself, her daughter, and Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight … How Louwana would have loved to hear police call Amanda a hero.”
For more information on media portrayals of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, consult the media literacy website Media Smarts. Media Smarts – a non-profit organization whose board includes elected reps from the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the Canadian Association of Principals, the National Film Board of Canada, and the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University – also has a section detailing how Aboriginal issues are discussed in media and pop culture.