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A Salt Lake City garden becomes a healing space to honor missing and murdered Indigenous people

Native communities gather for food, prayer, dance and drumming at Carry the Water in Glendale neighborhood.

(Russel A. Daniels) People wait in line for Navajo tacos on May 5, 2022, at the Carry the Water Garden in Salt Lake City's Glendale neighborhood, during an event for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Day.

In a garden built for healing, Utah members of several Native communities gathered to eat Navajo tacos together, pray, drum and dance — all in memory of people missing or killed, including Indigenous children who died at government boarding schools.

The gathering, marking National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day on Thursday evening, took place at Carry the Water, an Indigenous healing garden at 1459 S. 1000 West, in Salt Lake City’s Glendale neighborhood. The garden sits in the middle of three open lots, where volunteers have spent the spring clearing space, digging beds and getting ready to plant corn and herbs.

Thursday’s event — a collaboration between the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake, MMIWhoismissing, Restoring Ancestral Winds and MMIW+Utah — started with a shared meal of Navajo tacos. Families gathered at tables, wearing red, commemorating murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and orange, for boarding school survivors. Red signs with white lettering were placed throughout the garden: “We remember,” “My ancestral memory exceeds my life expectancy.” “Our children are sacred.” “Feed the people.”

Denae Shanidiin, a consultant to RAW and director of MMIWhoismissing, said feeding people at gatherings is integral to Indigenous communities, and part of the healing process. As a mutual aid organization, MMIWhoismissing can allocate money and volunteers to whatever is most needed — whether that’s food and drink, transportation, search effort support, or funeral costs and headstones for families who have missing or murdered relatives

“We are very sovereign, and it allows us to pick up that missing element that other organizations aren’t able to facilitate,” she said. “So we play that special role in that, and it’s just all volunteers and through kinship. And we’re able to feed folks that way.”

(Russel A. Daniels) Carl Moore of Pandos enjoys a Navajo taco at the Carry the Water Garden in Salt Lake City's Glendale neighborhood, during Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Day on May 5, 2022.

On the other end of the garden, the Urban Indian Center kept busy at three information booths. Kristinia Groves, co-acting executive director, said that MMIP has been an issue “since first contact, right? There’s been a lot of media about Pocahontas being the first MMIW. I don’t think a lot of people think about that, because all we know is the Disney version — not that she was a child, and she was taken from her people, and never returned back to her tribe after she was taken.”

The movement, Groves said, “has gotten a lot of traction” in the last couple of years. “In America, the government is not as involved as it could be. In Canada, this was a part of the reconciliation and taking responsibility for boarding schools, and protecting Native women, and so the people are the ones who really have to reach out and say, ‘Hey, this is an issue, and it’s always been an issue, and we need attention to this issue.’”

During the meal, people wrote the names of missing or murdered loved ones, and people visited the garden table, which was filled with ears of corn, seed packets and dried medicinal plants, including calendula and blessing cedar. The Ute Indian Tribe drum group Stolen Horse performed as people finished eating, and RAW board president Desiree Green welcomed everyone.

Green said her group aims to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous people in Utah, which she said ranked in the top 10 among states for MMIP. “We have eight tribal nations, and you don’t have to look far to speak with those who have lost someone or know of cases where someone has been abused or gone missing,” Green said.

Kalama Ku’ikahi, a consultant to Carry the Water Garden, told the crowd that “this garden belongs to all the Indigenous and BIPOC people living within Salt Lake. … When we live in the city, for so many of us, we feel detached from land. It’s hard to pray on concrete. It’s hard to pray in areas where you don’t see yourself. It’s hard to pray in areas that don’t seem right. So this is a place of prayer for those of us who are Indigenous. So we invite you to be a part of this, and build it with us.”

Carl Moore, director of Pandos, an all-volunteer Indigenous advocacy group, and SLC Air Protectors, asked the group to recognize that they were on Ute/Shoshone/Goshute land, then led the group in a four-direction song and a prayer. Pow-wow dancers — including fancy dancers, jingle dancers and a hoop dancer — performed, followed by an intertribal dance and a circle dance around all of the children and youth, as a gesture of protection. Orange and red candles were passed out to be lit in memory of MMIP and boarding school victims and survivors, and a candlelight vigil closed the evening’s proceedings.

(Russel A. Daniels) Denae Shanidiin uses a fan made of feathers to smudge Prince Naveen Scott and Marjorie Scott at the Carry the Water Garden in Salt Lake City's Glendale neighborhood, on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Day, May 5, 2022.

The garden is still being built out, Shanidiin said, but there have already been events here, including volunteer days and a gathering on April 30, where Indigenous and BIPOC communities came together to paint red and orange flowers for the mural in remembrance of MMIPD, which was unveiled during Thursday’s event. More events, formal and informal, will take place at the garden.

“We’re connecting youth with elders, restoring some kinship with plant medicine, food and ceremony. We’re in the process of building a sweat lodge for the community. We’ll be growing four different kinds of corn. We have prepared some sweet grass beds, we have sage and all kinds of medicine we’re going to be growing,” she said.

The goal, Shanidiin said, is to establish a safe place for Indigenous people, as well as for those in the BIPOC and LBGTQ+, or two-spirit, communities.

Corn, Shanidiin said, is considered “two-spirit, [which] is a new term, but it’s one we can understand and intersect between all of our languages, so in those traditional value systems, centering two-spirit is very much in the teachings around that. It restores our traditional ways of thinking about the gender binary system, and it’s trying to dismantle that because that is where a lot of these violent ideologies came from. …

“We’re all healing from colonization in a different way, and I think looking at the last few years, there’s this affirmation that healing together is so important,” Shanidiin added. “Instead of othering one another, our kinship with one another is medicine for all of us.”

Though Indigenous people may “feel safest with our BIPOC communities,” Shanidiin said many identify with cultures all around them, adding, “we all have indigenous roots in some ways, no matter where we come from, no matter where we live, even within an urban environment.”

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