Social justice activism is a calling. It can be a rewarding path, full of adrenaline highs, radical transformation and hard-earned achievements. It also can be a tiresome, dangerous and lonely path. For the emerging cohort of youth activists of our day, we must place our supportive hands firmly behind them, protecting them, bolstering them and feeding their righteous fires with fuel, ensuring their principled convictions continue burning brightly.

Growing Thunder

For 80 miles across Montana, 19-year-old college student Marita Growing Thunder walked through cold temperatures, and a mix of wind and rain, on a march to raise awareness of the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. Growing Thunder, a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux tribe, completed the trek over the course of four days during her spring break from college classes. On each day, she wore a different ribbon skirt, a contemporary version of the traditional ribbon dress worn by Assiniboine women at the turn of the 19th century.

“You wear (a ribbon skirt) to be your honest, true self,” Growing Thunder said in an interview with the Missoulian.

Growing Thunder is a soft-spoken young woman, wise beyond her years. A freshman at the University of Montana, her commitment to activism reaches back to her high school experience. As a high school senior, Growing Thunder devoted herself to a year-long arts advocacy project called “Save Our Sisters,” which involved sewing and wearing a new ribbon skirt or dress for every day of the school year to raise awareness of missing and murdered indigenous women. She organized the first annual Save Our Sisters walk during her senior year in March 2017, taking the 80-mile journey for the first time.

The walk is in its second year and cuts through the Flathead Indian Reservation, home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, where Growing Thunder has lived since she was in kindergarten. But the daily ribbon skirts, which she still wears as a college student, the walk and her overall cause, is much deeper than one might see from the outside. The epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women has affected Growing Thunder and her family directly.

According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Justice report, Native American women are murdered at 10 times the national rate in some parts of the country. In Montana, where Native Americans comprise 3 percent of the population, five of Growing Thunder’s aunts were murdered.

“I never got to know them,” Growing Thunder told me in a conversation earlier this week. “I know who they are, though. I see pictures, I hear stories every single day. My activism and this walk has so much to do with them.”

While her cause is noble, her work has also been emotionally and spiritually taxing.

Growing Thunder’s four-day walk runs through rural Montana where tensions run high between Native American and non-Native American communities. During her walk last year as a high school senior, hostile white men drove by at different times, some waving their middle fingers, others shouting expletives and racial slurs. This year, on her second day of the walk, a group of young men drove by, and she was spit on.

“This guy slowed in his car, and in the back, another guy rolled down the window. He went out of his way to spit so far at us, and it scared me,” Growing Thunder said. “It took a while to process. It was really shocking.”

Growing Thunder had others walking alongside her during the incident. They regrouped and continued to walk. While physically drained at the end of each day, Growing Thunder was consistent in her expression of gratitude for the support the walk received from community members.

One especially high honor for Growing Thunder was the gift of an eagle feather from an elder. “I’m a guest here (among the Salish and Kootenai), so it’s that much more of an honor for me.”

Marita Growing Thunder (third from left) and others who joined her on the second annual Save Our Sisters walk on the last day of the 80-mile trek. (Marita Growing Thunder)

During the four-day journey, Growing Thunder walked with interchanging groups of youth, women and men, Native and non-Native. During some stretches of the walk, groups as small as six walked alongside her, and on one stretch, she was joined by a group of 100 Native youth who were attending a youth summit in the area.

And though some situations on the walk triggered fear and anxiousness in Growing Thunder, other situations reminded her of the benevolence of fellow human beings. She described one situation where she was pleasantly surprised to receive support from where she least expected it.

“There was a truck that pulled up slowly, and it had a giant Trump-Pence sticker on it. They rolled down their window, wanting to know more about what we were doing,” Growing Thunder said. “We stepped forward toward the car together. Our strength is in numbers,” she affirmed.

To her surprise, the exchange was friendly and supportive. “That happened a couple of times,” she said. “In a split second, my fearful thoughts changed, and I saw somebody human. That was healing in itself, and especially in a place that has been so hostile to my family and to other Native people.”

Back on the University of Montana campus, Growing Thunder often walks alone, standing out among her peers in a brightly colored, floor-length ribbon skirt. She remains committed to her cause, while also taking deliberate actions to prioritize self-care.

Growing Thunder hikes the local trails after classes, she prays and she writes poetry. And sewing new ribbon skirt creations continues to be a creative outlet and a healing process for her. Sewing and activism have become a way of life.

“I try my best to be balanced,” she told me. “But of course, there’s always times where you hit a wall, and something throws you off.”

Marita Growing Thunder wearing one of the ribbon skirts she sewed in remembrance of missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Save Our Sisters / Facebook)

Many youth activists like Growing Thunder continue to endure struggles and bear burdens that many of us do not see. They are determined to shape a better future for their generation, and the generations that follow them. They push and they bend radically toward justice in ways that older generations may not have the idealism or the energy to do.

“No child should have to live without their mother,” said Growing Thunder, on her commitment to advocate for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women. “I can’t imagine my life without my mother or my sisters here with me. Speaking up about this issue is so important.”

To learn more about the Save Our Sisters and Marita Growing Thunder’s efforts, visit the Save Our Sisters webpage here.


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