Western Native Voice works year-round to inspire Native leadership so our communities flourish. We are excited to share with you Western Native Voice’s Community Spotlight, designed to highlight grassroots organizing and individuals creating change from across Montana and in Indian Country.
This month we visited with Marita Growing Thunder, Missoula-based activist and leader within the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement, to learn more about what inspires her activism and community involvement.
Ms. Marita Growing Thunder
School: University of Montana
“I grew up on the Flathead Indian reservation in Polson, MT but I’m an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. My mom is Shannon Ahhaitty and she is an enrolled member of the Kiowa tribes of Oklahoma. My father is Raymond George Growing Thunder. My maternal grandparents are Melvin Ahhaitty and Glenda Ahhaitty and my paternal grandparents are Joyce Growing Thunder and Jim Fogarty.”
What has inspired you to pursue leadership roles?
“Well I started this project when I was 17. I was a senior in high school and I went to the Center for Creative Youth in Connecticut and spent a month there studying music, specifically African music. Each student had different art mediums they were studying and they wanted each student to create their own project to bring back to their own communities. I knew about the MMIW issue over the summer and I read more and more into what was going on in Canada and how there’s nothing happening in the US. I wanted to broaden this issue beyond the colonized borders. I had to pray about it. I didn’t think a westernized art style could be suitable or appropriate to something that relates to Indigenous populations. I wanted to take an emotional approach with it. Many of the movements going on are very academic and very much around numbers and databases. There is no database in the US. The issue is never focused around the family. So I started creating dresses that have a story for each woman and family. There’s a name to most of the dress and some dresses that don’t have names still have a person behind it and a purpose to why I wake up and make it. I’ve been doing this for about 2 years now . Looking at the future, I’m looking to creating a non profit to help families with search parties, funeral costs you know just getting the body back to the family. I really want to see a future of health and vitality.”
Who are your biggest supporters?
“My mom and my sister. I really love my sister. They really kept me going through the thick and thin and I’m just really grateful to have my sister.”
How do you feel about current efforts to address the MMIW issue?
“The Violence Against Women Act doesn’t cover all of Indigenous communities. There are areas where Native women are being overwhelmingly attacked. There are researchers, such as Sarah Deer, who are doing research and writing books about violence against Indigenous women. She started when she was 17 or 19, so around my age, and she’s been very inspirational to me. In terms of government and politics, it’s really hard to say, but it’s not surprising that our government isn’t concerned. MMIW is not just an Indian issue it should be thought of as everybody’s issue. I think there’s a lot of cultural differences such as selfishness going on, especially recently, that hold back progress. That’s one reason why people may not be on board with these issues.”
What kind of change do you want to see in your community 5 years from now?
“I really hope to see more available help to Native women especially in terms of health care. I also want to see us all be united as a whole. To really unite and fight for our communities, culture and to find our sisters.”
What role does art play in social change and activism?
“I think art is in everything because life can’t go on without it, especially in our culture. There’s so much history in what we wear and how it was taken away from us for so many years. In a way it’s a privilege to have it back and to own it as well. I believe for social change to come it's important to have a visual and emotional response to something. I think art definitely brings people together.”
How can people, both neighbors and strangers, help?
“In terms of helping with the efforts, I really like to see people in their own Indigenous wear. We’re all Indigenous on this earth. Specifically for Native Americans, I’d like to see people represent their own tribes, tribal wear, their own traditional wear and dress in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This project Is not cheap so I do accept donations. I never sell any of these skirts. I never sell anything that’s being exhibited.”
How can people donate?
"People can email email@example.com I accept fabric, ribbon and will use anything people give.”
What would you tell other Indigenous women and girls?
“There’s nothing you can’t do. It doesn’t matter how many times a person tells you you can’t do it or that you’re doing something too big. If you set aside time then you can do anything you can put your mind to. That’s the honest truth, I believe. Just get a little more organized and then you can do it.”
Listen to Marita Growing Thunder as she explains the stories behind the dresses she makes. The images below were taken during this interview and are included here to give visual aid.