Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

Mattee Jim Credit: Courtesy Transgender Law Center

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As we close out the year, we are on our final group of stories in regard to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives. This week we talked with Mattee Jim, a community specialist with First Nations, an organization in town that provides health care and mental health resources for the Native community. As we began our discussion, we briefly talked about “titles.” I thought I would share with you all that we at The Paper. will refer to this issue from this point forward as MMIWR. The “R” stands for relatives. As more and more work is being done in this space, and much of that information comes from governmental or organizational elements, what we call this issue is important. Governmental groups tend to use “P” as a designation for People. This is fine, but there is also a bit of a disconnect when we use that term. 

Mattee Jim, herself is an openly transgender Native woman; her response explained it all very well. “I do “R” and “P” both but for different reasons. “P” Because missing, murdered Indigenous peoples is more on the federal level, and they see only cases or people. We see that for us over here, we’re doing M M I W R because we’re looking for our relatives and I like that better. Because it’s saying relatives and these are our relatives that are going missing and murdered. They are somebody’s relatives. Right?” 

That little disconnect is important. Many times those working cases like these try not to take these cases “home with them.” The mental and emotional toll can be heavy. So for them to refer to cases using the term MMIW”P”  is culturally, personally and spiritually creating distance. But as Mattee explained, these families dealing with these issues are often the relatives. Daughters, mothers, husbands, kids and brothers. Families do not just have the ability to place these occurrences at arm’s length. They have to deal with the fallout of MMIWR personally every day. So to use the term “R”, as in relatives, is a much more caring and closer term.

Relatives. How do we define relatives? In the Indigenous/Native community, relations can not only be by blood but relatives can include clans, societies, distant cousins and family we adopted into our mix over the years. Relatives can be any of that, as long as they have a relationship with you in some form. Relatives can have problems and issues, but they are still connected to our community and us. Relatives can also be of a different sexual orientation or gender identity, these people still have families, and they are still our relations. 

Stating the above is essential because it allows for the beginning of an open discussion. A family talk, per se. Mattee always makes it very clear in our conversations that there is terminology thrown around and people like to categorize each other, but LGBTQ is still about people and family. The fight for acceptance and self-empowerment amongst the LGBTQ community is nothing new. And even with the best steps to be inclusive, there is always more that can be done to provide safe places and safe attitudes toward those in the LGBTQ community. 

Mattee is on the MMIWR Task Force for the State of New Mexico, and even though her inclusion is great, she feels there is still much work to be done. “I feel there needs to be more representation of those community members. I feel that many CIS people are in the missing and murdered group and we are the subpopulation of that main focus group. But I think it is about the identifiers. It all depends on how you and others identify you in some cases. My sister, Callie, got murdered in 2009. So she went home and they buried her the way the family wanted to bury her, (as a male, not a female). And it was unfortunate. To see that and to know that her murder has never been solved. And knowing her, I know that other relatives have had their gay relatives pass on or were murdered or went missing, it happens more than we know.” 

Unfortunately, the “identifiers” sometimes take precedence in the reporting, investigation, and closure of MIWR cases. What Mattee is referring to is the fact that a person can identify in one way and then not be given that same respect, sometimes even from their own family, in regard to how they are taken care of at death. Or how that information is shared if they have gone missing or are searching for evidence. Regarding data on LGBTQ cases within the MMIWR space, the numbers are hard to clearly identify.

Among people of color, American Indian (65%), multiracial (59%), Middle Eastern (58%) and Black (53%) respondents of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey were most likely to have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime

Mattee met directly with the Office of the Medical Investigator at the State’s first Missing Persons Day this fall. “I think there could be a higher percentage of LGBTQ in MIMWR, but it’s about identification. OMI made me happy because they’re getting the right data collection. They’re getting the right information and they’re taking the right approach. If they’re trans, other programs might say, “oh, this is a male that was deceased,” and they categorize that person as male. Me, I’m trans, but I haven’t had surgery. And if somebody were to identify me probably, they would say, “oh, they’re male because of the body parts.” And it’s interesting how even when you’re gone, your genitals determine how you are defined, no matter how you lived.”

The NM Office of the Medical Investigator is trying to be aware of how they identify and place the data. They attempt to note information they have regarding how one is identified in their reports. Even just using the deceased’s public name over their given name is important, especially in the LGBTQ community. But state records are state records, some states do not allow people even to change their names. NM is actually fairly proactive in this matter and allows individuals to change their gender designation as far back as their birth certificate to one of three options, M, F, and X. 

But it isn’t only just the institutions that create these problems. Sometimes, it is family. Sometimes it is community. The LGBTQ community in tribal spaces must work against a lot of prejudice. Sometimes a family will not respect how an individual represents themselves. Because of their issues with the victim, it can hinder how that victim’s case is dealt with by law enforcement, health providers, the judicial system, and more. 

On the other hand, it can be just ignored totally. The whole “well, if it didn’t affect me” attitude can lead to apathy and detriment to those in a community looking for acceptance to live life just like anyone else. 

Interestingly enough, the Indigenous LGBTQ community is pretty large and active. For generations, our communities included these individuals in our lives without issue. We’wha, the well-known “two-spirit” individual from Zuni Pueblo, is an excellent example of this. These are people in our communities since day one. 

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), StrongHearts Native Helpline (StrongHearts), and the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center (AKNWRC) explained this beautifully in their publication Reconnecting with Native Teachings and Creating Healing Spaces with and for 2S+/LGBTQ+ Victim-Survivors of Domestic Violence. “Because of colonization and the church/missions, older generations have forgotten the roles of 2-spirited relatives within our communities. So our way of supporting our LGBTQ relatives is reintroducing those teachings and roles that our grandparents may have forgotten.”

Mattee adds, “Even within tribal communities too, some are more accepting than others. How does that also look with community members? How do we address those issues? How do we reteach our people? Not hearing the word “faggot” or “queer”; or “they’re disgusting.” That’s growth. “Don’t be queer.” Stuff like that, that’s where the hate teaching that’s coming from. And it still happens to this day. Even transphobic jokes and homophobic jokes. We have always been part of this community, Not even as people like to say “two-spirit,” that idea of gender, that’s not our tradition. Physical gender wasn’t as important as the roles that a person played in the community.

Mattee poses this question, “With our population, how do you include us? What steps are you taking to include our populations? For example, I may represent the LGBTQ community in this New Mexico Task Force, but I’m just one person. So how’s the group going to include others of my population in this group intentionally? Are they going to rely on Maddie to recruit? No, it shouldn’t be that way. Intentional inclusion is when you have your ideas and who you want at the table, and who you think would be beneficial to have at the table. Who represents our community too. So it shouldn’t be just me, or shouldn’t it be just anybody that is part of that population?”

Intentional inclusion is the keyword in this conversation. Much learning and acceptance need to happen both within our communities and homes. But then the next step is to get beyond the tokenism of being the LGBTQ person in the room and make those given seats at the table work for the LGBTQ community. All those involved needs to take a moment and listen to the issues facing the LGBTQ community in regard to this issue, and include them in that hard discussion. Ask how we can do better to be inclusive. That is what we have been taught, whether you are a “P” or an “R”, that is what a caring community does for its members because we are both of those identifiers,  a person and a relative. 

**This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two- Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).