In July of 2021, Gabby Petito, a 22 year-old white woman from Florida, went on a road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, to explore the West Coast of the United States. For the first two months of the trip, Petito and her parents maintained daily communication, until it all abruptly stopped after August 30th. Following some investigation, it was reported that the couple had gotten into an explosive argument around this time. Petito was officially reported missing on September 11, 2021. Laundrie was considered a possible suspect in Petito’s death when her body was found in Wyoming, and Laundrie’s family reported their own son missing six days later on September 17. Authorities later found his body at a Florida preserve. Many questions still remain regarding the motives and what actually happened. News stations such as CNN and CBS have been staying up to date since. 

Jade Wagon, a woman from the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming was reported missing at the beginning of January 2020. The case was opened and closed in the same month and not many news stations have reported on her disappearance or anything to do with the aftermath since. 

There exists a clear disparity between which groups of people are targeted in the media compared to those who don’t receive the same support. She was not the only missing Indigenous woman who was neglected by the media.  In fact, over the past decade  710 girls in Wyoming of Indigenous descent have only recently been reported missing. There has been no media coverage or representation since. 

According to NBC News, over the past decade 85 percent of missing persons in Wyoming were minors. Almost sixty percent of them were women, girls, and Indigenous people were twice as likely to still be missing after thirty days.  Part of the reason why these discrepancies exist is due to the amount of media attention received. Multiple news stations and social media have been staying up to date, reposting, and investing time and money into the Petito case, bringing the case to the forefront of the public eye.  Meanwhile, little media attention has been paid to the missing Indigenous persons.

Rama K. Ramaswamy, Co-President of World of Wellesley (WoW), a small grassroots organization focused on promoting equity and diversity, is alarmed by the lack of coverage of Non-Caucasian missing persons. 

“In a sense that’s kind of disturbing, because of people like Jade Wagon’s sister who are out there, using the news media to bring this inequity to life, we now know, we do not understand the discrepancy between people who are reported missing and those who seem to not be cared about.” said Ramaswamy.

 Joan Aandeg, a member of both Indigenous Peoples Day Wellesley and the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, is not surprised by the  media coverage. 

“In the settler culture, historically, there’s concern and care for white women. It’s not surprising to me that the media doesn’t cover missing and murdered Indigenous people, because the mainstream consciousness does not acknowledge the existence of Native people…Mainstream consciousness is centered in the Western European perspective of the settler colonial system and so when you begin to see that, then you can start to look for the voices that are missing and elevate those voices. Everyone that has been marginalized, pushed to the outside, minimized, those are the people we need to hear from the most.” said Aandeg.

When there is no one to report on the disappearances of Indigenous women and advocate for a change in media representation, these stories will continue to be excluded from major media outlets. In fact, the problem without support is that voices cannot be heard. Only through the voices of people can cases be brought to life.

“A lot of social justice oriented movements are affected by people reporting on those incidents and clearly stating or demonstrating what is wrong about these incidents. And then from that, people who generally care about other people are willing to help– and the capacity they can. From that, you can develop allyship. But if you don’t report on the things, or if people aren’t aware that there are these problems that exist, then where you would normally have allies, you don’t because they’re just unaware.” said Samuel Sanchez, another member of IPD Wellesley.

IPD Wellesley started out very small, but following the past year, it has seen a huge push in terms of the committee board coming together and gathering more supporters. In total, 16 members worked on educating Wellesley resident voters, select board members, and town meeting members. Finally, Indigenous People’s Day was officially celebrated on October 11, 2021. For the past five  to six years, IPD Wellesley has been working toward establishing Indigenous People’s Day in Wellesley. Though successful in the end, the committee could not make it through without facing several obstacles.

“It was this huge uphill battle because first, nobody knew anything about Indigenous reality. Nobody even knew to think about Indigenous people because we’re so erased from settler history and media. We’d talk about the boarding schools and about the genocide. It was like genocide was a dirty word. It was this feeling of ‘we don’t talk about that,” said Aandeg.

The main opposition lay in the fact that some believed advocating for Indigenous People’s Day was seen as “replacing” Columbus Day. In Wellesley, there were certain oppositions against the idea of IPD in Wellesley. Some proposed the idea of having Indigenous People’s Day be celebrated the day after Thanksgiving instead of it replacing Columbus Day. 

Amid disagreement, it was crucial for the people of IPD Wellesley to work on making sure that advocating for Indigenous People’s Day was fair and presented in a manner that wasn’t denigrating another group of people and their culture.

“The IPD Committee had to speak these things and put these things in a context to win over hearts and minds by putting this in context. And say that they’re trying to tear anyone’s culture down, they’re not trying to take anything away from anybody. But it is important to honor historically marginalized, vulnerable communities who have preceded other people in the Americas and who continue to be discriminated against. There’s nothing that honors them really. This is a day of honor for those people.” said Ramaswamy.

Both IPD Wellesley and WoW are promoting education and awareness around Indigenous culture, history, and myth-busting in the Wellesley community. In regards to the recent celebrations of IPD, many indigenous authors, like Carol Lindstrom, author of “We Are Water Protectors” have had book hearings with the Wellesley Free Library. IPD Wellesley is working on booklists for the primary, secondary, and high school at Wellesley, hoping to increase knowledge and literature within grade levels all across the town.

Other towns in Massachusetts have also been advocating for IPD and general education about Indigenous people. 14 communities in the state officially recognize the holiday. 

“And going forward, as Co-Prez of WoW, it’s not just about shining a spotlight on the past and acknowledging things that happened. But, what kind of society do we want to be going forward? Do we want to be the kind of people who acknowledge what happened in the past and be accurate about it and then try to make a better society for all people? Or do we just want to just sort of cover it up and say that ‘no, we like our traditions even though they are discriminatory and unfair and we are just going to perpetuate the crimes? We’re just going to hide things. We’re not going to have transparency.” said Ramaswamy.

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