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A uniquely New Mexican act of protest

January 22, 2019

The resonant thump of Native drums rang out and the scent of burning sage wafted through the winter air.

With a focus on the plight of women in the state’s Native American communities, Santa Fe’s third annual Women’s March was an inclusive — and uniquely New Mexican — act of protest. Still, activists’ overarching message echoed that of marchers nationwide: We’ve come so far and yet we still have so far to go.

In a somewhat smaller demonstration than in years past, about 2,500 people marched Saturday morning from the Roundhouse to the Plaza in support of various of human-rights issues. The Santa Fe march was one of more than 250 events planned worldwide.

Native American marchers led the throngs down Old Santa Fe Trail, chanting familiar rallying cries and brandishing signs, including two that read “Fighting the Patriarchy since 1492” and “There will not be gender equality unless there is racial equality.”

Another sign featured a New York Times photograph of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of Albuquerque, a member of Laguna Pueblo and one of the first two Native women to serve in Congress.

The theme of this year’s marches nationwide, #WomensWave, was particularly relevant for the marchers in New Mexico, where in November dozens of women, including Haaland, were swept into office for the first time.

At the rally following Saturday’s march, several of those women, including state Reps. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, and Susan Herrera, D-Española, joined speakers on stage. Newly elected State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard read a letter from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office Jan. 1.

“One hundred years ago, there was only one woman in Congress,” Garcia Richard read. “There are right now a record 127 female members of Congress. … This is all part of the change we want to see — women not only with a seat at the table but at the head of the table.”

But the mood was not always so optimistic.

A hush fell over the crowd when Amber Morningstar Byars, a Choctaw and Chickasaw activist who works with event co-organizer 3 Sisters Collective, took the stage to discuss high rates of murder and sexual violence among Native women.

The epidemic, Byars said, is an underreported, underinvestigated plague on Native communities.

Murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native American and Alaska Native women. And Native women are 10 times more likely than the national average to be murdered, Byars said, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Whenever I find myself surrounded by a group of my Native sisters, like I am right now, I wonder to myself, which one of us is next?” Byars said.

After reading the names of missing or murdered Native women, including 23 from New Mexico, Byars called on white marchers to ally themselves with Native women.

“The epidemic is not going to end anytime soon unless you get involved,” she said. “We ask you to call and to write to your local, state and federal representatives and demand that they put missing and murdered indigenous women on their agendas. … Please get involved, because our lives depend on it.”

Byars was one of 16 speakers to address marchers at the 2½-hour rally. In addition to Native rights, they spoke of equality for all races and genders, environmental justice, equal pay, poverty, sexual violence, immigration issues and reproductive rights.

Although it has faced allegations of anti-Semitism and internal turmoil in recent months, the national Women’s March organization has billed itself as a diverse coalition pushing a broad social justice agenda.

As the hours passed Saturday, the crowd dwindled. Santa Fe residents Justin Walters, Mica Carlile andMireya Vazquez remained on the Plaza’s periphery.

Carlile, holding a sign that read “My body, my choice,” said she’d joined the throngs this year to advocate for reproductive rights.

“I’m extremely concerned about Roe v. Wade being overturned, and I’m worried about women’s access to health care in general, not just reproductive,” Carlile said. “I’m worried that that’s under attack and facing heavy regulation by men, mostly.”

Carlile said she has other issues on her mind, too: “We’d need, like, 20 posters to fill all the things that we care about right now and all the things we’re marching for.”

Despite the pressing concerns, for Vazquez, the tone of the march was tinged with joy for the first time.

“We are doing something,” she said. “Even if it’s just two or three hours out of the year, the fact that this year we elected over 100 women [to Congress], this is … obviously raising awareness and making women feel empowered.”

“It really does feel like a celebration,” she added.

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