On the silences that shroud the disappearances of Aboriginal women and girls
This woman is Black
So her blood is shed in silence
This woman is Black
So her death falls to earth
To be washed away with silence and rain
… I do not even know all their names
My sisters’ deaths are not noteworthy
Nor threatening enough to decorate the evening news
Not important enough to be fossilised
—Audre Lorde, Need: A Choral of Black Women’s Voices
We do not know how many Aboriginal women have gone ‘missing’ in this country. The archives are filled with the ‘missing’: the Aboriginal women who are no longer here to speak; the Aboriginal women who do not have names; the Aboriginal women who do not have graves or places where their families can remember them. There is a comfort that comes with the word ‘missing’, because to be ‘missing’ implies that perhaps they have left on their own accord; that there are no perpetrators or violence enacted against them. As Canadian First Nations lawyer and activist Pam Palmater says, the term ‘missing’ is a misnomer: ‘It seems to imply that these women or girls are just lost or ran away for a few days.’ ‘Missing’ also comes with the assumption that the case is still active. When the police speak of ‘missing persons’, there is an implication that the police are still searching for them, and that they will never tire in their search until those who are ‘missing’ are found or come back. Because they are still ‘missing’, the police do not see themselves as responsible for failing to find them; but instead, see the women themselves as ‘responsible’ for going missing in the first place. There is a term specific to this place, in that women are accused of going ‘walkabout’, which serves to naturalise their disappearances as innate to Aboriginal culture, and not a distinctly settler-colonial phenomenon.
We don’t know how many Aboriginal women have gone ‘missing’ in this country because until recently no-one was really counting, and even when there are attempts to gather numbers, it remains limited to police datasets. As First Nations journalists Isabella Higgans and Sarah Collard wrote in 2019, police will often categorise a ‘missing’ person into three categories: ‘lost, missing, or murdered’. The definition of ‘missing’ is ‘willingly left, or were forced to leave’. But there is no category for those who have ‘vanished’ into a state of ambiguity between life and death, who are seen as not ‘missing’ or ‘murdered’ or ‘lost’. By relying on police categorisation of ‘missing persons’, the racial violence that obliterates women and their ties to country and community is left shrouded in silence. And because this racial violence is unspeakable through this erasure, the role of the police in these disappearances is left uninterrogated. In a Four Corners investigation that aired in October 2022, First Nations journalists Bridget Brennan, Suzanne Dredge and Brooke Fryer found that there have been 315 Aboriginal women who have been murdered, disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances since 2000.
In 2010 the National Women’s Association of Canada announced its own research into the number of Indigenous girls deemed missing or murdered over two decades. They found 582 cases, and that number rose to 1181 when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced its own statistics into cases of ‘police-recorded incidents of Aboriginal female homicides and unresolved missing Aboriginal females’ between 1980 and 2012. Until the Four Corners investigation, we did not have the same dataset, and the issue is complicated by the fact that across Australia there are Aboriginal women whose deaths or disappearances have never been investigated.
Nearly three decades ago, Professor Judy Atkinson wrote on how the deaths of Aboriginal women by violence were being determined as ‘natural causes’, prior to any investigation. There are cases of Aboriginal women whose deaths are quickly determined as ‘suicides’ and sent to coronial courts. For example, in 2020 the NT coroner referred the case of three Aboriginal girls who had died by suicide to the DPP due to the highly suspicious nature of their deaths. In one of these cases—Keturah Mamarika, who was known as Cheralyn—counsel assisting at the inquest suggested the potential of foul play. The two other girls, Layla Leering and Fionica James, had also suffered tremendous trauma and sexual violence prior to their deaths, and were referred to the DPP with the coroner stating it was possible that crimes had been committed against them. This means that the data is always limited, always predicated on police investigations that are so often ineffective.
We know that it is relatively rare for homicides or cases of missing persons not to be solved or resolved in this country. Every year in Australia, nearly 40,000 people are reported ‘missing’, and most of these people are found within a day, with only about 2 per cent remaining unsolved ‘missing persons’ cases. In my home state of Queensland, it is extremely rare for those who die by homicide not to be found.
By relying on police categorisation and protocol on ‘missing persons’, or on homicide, the racial violence that disappears the women and their ties to country and community is left shrouded in silence. The focus on data also foregrounds the police in the analysis even though police are those who are making it possible for the women to disappear in the first place. The numbers can never reveal what made it possible for the disappearances to occur. Because it is not just the cases in which the bodies of Aboriginal women have disappeared, but also those who are found, and whose deaths are never properly investigated, whose families are left with the continuing trauma of not knowing, and whose names go unheard and are never written of, are never aired or never broadcast in ways that could lead to national displays of mourning, like in the cases of other deaths.
The ‘real’ silence
For so long, Aboriginal women have been accused of being complicit in a ‘silence’ surrounding violence against Aboriginal women, while simultaneously being tasked with the responsibility of ‘breaking’ it. This is shown in the ways the bodies of black women are spoken of. During the days of the frontier, violent tropes were circulated and reproduced without evidence in order to claim ‘savagery’ by Aboriginal men, in contrast with the discourse of ‘settler gallantry’, as historian Liz Conor has written in her book Skin Deep: ‘In hundreds of printed accounts that reflected on gender relations in Aboriginal society, settlers routinely believed women were utterly subjugated by their “tyrannical men”, whom they pilloried as “lords and masters”.’ These accounts were unsubstantiated but reproduced to support the lie that Aboriginal men were a ‘threat’, to be intensely policed and placed under surveillance.
These tropes and representations have continued into the present and are used to enact brutal forms of state-sanctioned violence against not just Aboriginal women, but also men and children. The key example is that of Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers, who painted Aboriginal culture as ‘punitive’ and violent in 2006, and laid the groundwork for the NT intervention. It resurfaced in the words of NT Supreme Court judge Judith Kelly who claimed in 2022 that Aboriginal communities ‘prioritised male perpetrators’ over that of female victims and claimed again as a problem of Aboriginal culture that ‘tolerates violence against women’. According to Kelly, the courts were doing a ‘good job’, but instead were scared to speak out for being branded ‘racists’. Through the voices of white witnesses such as Kelly and Rogers, who are painted as courageous crusaders and breakers of the silence, the real silence is maintained, in which Aboriginal women can speak but only in the limits prescribed by these witnesses; limits in which the role of racial violence as a tool of the settler colony is deemed unspeakable. Silencing works not through a lack of speaking, but through one discourse replacing the other, less palatable discourse.
Aboriginal women have never been silent about violence, but have been writing and producing reports, and speaking out at the grassroots level for decades. And yet, because this silence has been constructed, ironically around the artificial ‘silence’, our voices have been in turn silenced so that we are yelling into a deep abyss. Violence against Aboriginal women has always been seen in the context of ‘black on black crime’, in ways that obscure the role of the police and courts in not only sanctioning but providing the conditions for violence to occur. Because of this silencing, it is Aboriginal women who are not just seen as ‘victims’ when voiceless, but are also painted in turn as perpetrators and criminals, devastatingly demonstrated in the fact that over the years, Aboriginal women have been locked up at higher and higher rates, with most of them being victims of violence.
Aboriginal women, when killed or have disappeared, are still painted as criminals; seen as ‘drug addicts’ or uncaring mothers. They are not just viewed as unworthy of love, but incapable of loving; even though in their absence it is their families who gather to resist the colonial versions of their loved ones with their own grieving practices, grounded in relationality, love and care. Whether inside or outside, the deaths of Aboriginal women are not seen as notable or grievable deaths. This is because the stories we tell of this violence is not the story that the mainstream media or the courts want to tell, and in order to break through the silence we are told we must privilege their accounts.
What I began to understand was that the framework was not one of ‘violence against Aboriginal women’, but rather of the disappearance of Aboriginal women in this colony. I use ‘disappearance’ deliberately because it ties the deaths and disappearances of black women to an ongoing settler-colonial project that actively targets black women. It is linked to a genocidal practice rather than Aboriginal women existing in spaces of violence, as bodies to which violence is done. ‘Genocide’ was a key determination of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, which sought to clarify how it operates distinctively in settler colonies. The inquiry found that genocide encompasses a variety of lethal and non-lethal acts, including acts of ‘slow death’, all of which have very specific impacts on women and girls: ‘The reality must be acknowledged as a precursor to understanding genocide as a root cause of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.’
‘Disappearance’ and ‘disappearing’ are political acts; they are projects that have not ended and so we must speak of it in order to understand how they have been silenced for so long. By speaking of disappearance, we can see how the deaths and disappearances of Aboriginal women are a part of a practice that defines the country, one in which ‘disappearance’ is the inevitable goal in order to sustain, maintain and assert a ‘truth’ built upon Indigenous absence from Indigenous lands. In the context of Canada, Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson shows clearly how this is a political project, how these disappearances and deaths of Aboriginal women are a requirement of the state ‘in order to secure its sovereignty’.
She speaks of how Native women have been ‘rendered unrapeable (or highly rapeable), because she was just like the land, matter to be extracted from, used, sullied, taken from, over and over again, something that is already violated and violable’. It is through this prism that she sees the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country: ‘When we account for this way of looking at Indian women it is not a mystery, nor is it without explanation, their so-called disappearances are consistence with this ongoing project of dispossession.’
The act of disappearing
In the 1970s, a term emerged to describe the tens of thousands of people who had disappeared under the dictatorial regimes of several Latin American countries. The term used was ‘enforced disappearance’. It was a practice that involved the kidnapping of thousands of people in a move to wipe from society those whom governments deemed as an affront. The use of ‘disappearing’ was deliberate, as Argentina’s first commander in chief Jorge Rafael Videla said: ‘The disappeared are just that: Disappeared; they are neither alive or dead.’ In Argentina an estimated 30,000 people disappeared by force during its dictatorial regime. In the acts of disappearing, those who are made to disappear are confined to spaces of disappearance; not just in the places in which they are disposed, in which they are buried, but in the spaces set up to ensure that they are never found; in the apathy of the police, and in the refusals of the courts to prosecute, to the silence of the media and the acquiescence of the state and in turn society. Disappearance on such a scale means that there are many actors involved beyond the original perpetrators.
In the context of Argentina, the practice of ‘disappearing’ only became widely known when the madres and abuelas began protesting for their children and grandchildren. Secrecy had characterised and sustained the practice. The tactics involved not only the removal of ‘undesirable elements’ to clandestine detention centres, but also the methods of disposal, which included the notorious ‘death flights’, where people would be thrown from planes in the middle of the night into oceans and rivers, only to be discovered when their bodies washed upon the shores. When relatives of the disappeared went to authorities for help in finding their loved ones, they were often turned away, or told that their loved ones had simply run off. As Jacqueline Adams writes:
the relatives were met with ‘nos’ at every turn. Government officials told them that the disappeared person was not in their records, some said they had probably run away with another woman. Even the judicial system responded negatively, not presenting the disappeared persons in court … moreover, government officials, the courts and the mecha denied or expressed doubt that the disappearances had occurred. The media at first called the disappeared the ‘allegedly disappeared’ or ‘presumed disappeared’.
The families were confronted with the fight not just to find their loved ones and discover what happened to them, but also to have the issue acknowledged. There was a keen psychological impact on those who were still there, the way they felt marginalised by the denial and pained by the ambiguity associated with not knowing. The vast scale of the pain associated with disappearing was difficult to grasp, because once a person has disappeared, it is not only that person who becomes a victim, but also those who have been harmed by the disappearance. Because those who disappear are absent, it is their absence that comes to define them, as Gatti writes. This is the violence inherent in the act, because it is a way of exerting a violence that never ends, acting as a continuum to those who are closest to those who are not here. As Gatti writes: ‘The condition of the “disappeared” is determined by what we do not know about them (their captivity, their death, the whereabouts of their remains … What we don’t know, negation is what defines them.’ To have disappeared, he writes, represents a new state of being, one in which the disappeared ‘exist as present absence’ and this is an act for which we do not have any form of representation, or way of making meaning of it. ‘It is a space that is unresolvable: there is no resolution even with the likely certainty of death.’
The United Nations Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance defines the practice as
considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by the refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
It is the second part of the definition that I am interested in; the idea that ‘groups acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the state’ make this a form of ‘enforced disappearance’. The inquests into the disappearances of Aboriginal women in Queensland have shown me that there is a general apathy when Aboriginal women are deemed ‘missing’, and their cases are not properly investigated. For example, in the case of Monique Clubb, a police officer from the Missing Persons Unit had said that the coronial report had been prepared within a month of her disappearance, which largely signals the end of an investigation. He said the report had been compiled after the ‘dust had settled’. The term struck me as so casual in its callousness, because even as the dust was still in the air, the police had begun burying her story. The dust could never settle for her family until she was found and brought home.
This apathy is shown even in cases where Aboriginal women are found, and where there is evidence of injury. The state is then complicit in the disappearance due to its failure to search or penalise and prevent. The responsibility for finding the missing person or delivering justice is obscured by placing responsibility upon the women and their families and communities; or through the continual colonial representations that Aboriginal culture is ‘violent’. The state, the nation, becomes an active participant and conspirator in these acts of disappearing.
The failure to situate these deaths and disappearances in a framework of disappearance in which the state is complicit means that the mainstream media also becomes part of this wider apparatus. In relation to the shocking feminicides in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, in Mexico, Ignacio Corona critiques the role of the media in perpetuating representational violence on women who have been killed and disposed of. He labels this ‘violent journalism’, which ‘depicts (in both fact and opinion) and produces (in its discursive formalisation) a more violent reality’. He shows that there is a double editorial strategy in which the media ‘reap the benefits of the sensationalist appeal’ of the women’s deaths, and then, by hiding them again when their stories immediately fall out of the news cycle. ‘This symbolic transfer of information to the black box of the authorities’ desks for their supposed investigation amounts to a second disappearance of the bodies, given the endemic corruption in the country’s criminal justice system.’ He writes that the ‘news media’s treatment of the murdered women further disappears them’; their anonymity based on the descriptions of their bodies confines them to the ‘unknown’. When these individual deaths are reported, they become simply fragments of a wider puzzle, allowing for speculation as to unnamed perpetrators while making absent the underlying conditions of violence that lead to these murders.
‘Feminicide’ is a term that became widely used to describe the shocking levels of violence perpetrated against women throughout Latin America but characterised specifically the violence in Ciudad Juárez. One definition is provided by Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso, who says ‘feminicide is the assassination of a woman committed by a man, where one finds all of the elements of the relationship of inequality between the sexes … not only is the woman’s biological body assassinated, but what the cultural construction of her body has signified’. This is where I see the phenomenon of disappearance as being not only the physical disappearing of Aboriginal women, but also the disappearing of their personhood in the ways that they are represented, which so often is based not on who they were but rather how a violent settler colony has imagined them to be.
Aboriginal women have throughout history been labelled promiscuous, highly sexualised, and their bodies open and available for violation. When Aboriginal women are reported on in the media, they are immediately seen as disposable, so their deaths are not inherently newsworthy, but in fact a continuation of the norm. This is where the media is complicit: in not presencing them in their absence, in not allowing for a discourse in which they can be mourned and seen as grievable deaths. By disappearing them, they are disappeared from a nation founded on the notion of the inevitable disappearance of Indigenous peoples, for which the targeting of Aboriginal women was essential.
Just like the madres and abuelas in Argentina who gathered in public spaces weekly to find their loved ones, to protest against the lies they were being told, so do the families of the Aboriginal women who have disappeared, who fight in their own way even when told that their loved ones’ deaths are the result of issues such as ‘addiction’, ‘family violence’ and ‘black on black crime’. Aboriginal families must go to greater lengths to get media attention, and their testimonies are still only validated when first backed by ‘authoritative accounts’ of white witnesses who are seen as ‘reliable’. I know of many Aboriginal families who, when faced with police apathy and inadequate searches, conduct their own searches, contact the media and fight in their own way, because just like the madres and abuelas, they are told that these disappearances or deaths are perhaps just cases in which they have gone ‘walkabout’, or have caused their own deaths.
When we speak of disappearing Aboriginal women, the focus is never on ‘justice’. Instead, there is a focus on the coronial inquiry, which is framed around police protocols, entrenching the notion of disappearance in the way it is orientated not towards justice or repatriation but towards absolution. In their absence, sometimes the physical absence, but certainly the symbolic and representational absence, it is easy to begin absolving police of their failures to search and provide answers to families. This is key to coronial processes in settler-colonial societies. As American scholar Lisa Stevensen has critiqued, in the coronial process there is an expectation of death, and a benevolent display in which Indigenous peoples are ‘exhorted to live … while simultaneously expect(ed) to die’. Similarly, Canadian scholar Sherene Razack critiques the coronial process as one in which ‘state accountability receded the more that details about physically and emotionally ravaged Indigenous people came into view’. Justice cannot be found in these processes, because the stories that emerge always rest on Indigenous dysfunction rather than the acts of disappearing, and define ‘violence’ as existing only in Indigenous spaces.
Indigenous resistance to violence is always told through these frameworks, which only makes this resistance seem ‘violent’ when told through the limited prism of a place designed to deny us the power to speak our own truths and realities. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg theorist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson says that this is always about ‘justice’ defined through a Western lens: ‘A lot of the time state justice is about white people feeling better about themselves. State narratives of justice are processes that are about injustice for us’. Justice is so often a foreign concept, to be found and defined in the very places that enact the most brutal violence, that are set up for the ‘disappearance’ of Indigenous peoples again.
Not only does this framework of disappearance show how Aboriginal women are victims, but it also speaks to the use of the justice system as one that contains and causes Aboriginal women to disappear from public space and sight. In all the cases I attended in Queensland, the women had been criminalised throughout their whole lives. While living they were always highly visible to police, when they were ‘missing’ they were treated more like ‘wanted persons’. The photos on their ‘missing persons’ posters didn’t show how they lived and how they were loved, but rather were the mugshots held in police archives, which showed them as criminalised people, in spaces of containment that meant they had disappeared from their families, communities and children. When ‘missing’ or ‘murdered’ Aboriginal women are seen as ‘criminals’, they are made invisible in public consciousness, and the urgency to find them or deliver ‘justice’ wanes.
The failure to see police as perpetrators of violence is another example of the silence. In the year the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down (1991), the Human Rights Commission released its landmark report into racial violence across the country. The report dedicated an entire chapter to racial violence perpetrated on Aboriginal people by police. While the royal commission had failed to identify police as perpetrators, stating that the issue of ‘black deaths in custody’ was instead largely due to over-incarceration, and notably erased the unique experiences of Aboriginal women in custody, the Human Rights Commission report revealed shocking accounts of police officers as perpetrators of sexual violence. For example, the report said ‘in Mossman, an Aboriginal woman alleged that she had been raped by a police officer while in custody’.
There were also complaints from Alice Springs that Aboriginal teenage girls had been assaulted and raped by police officers and other white males. There were reports from Burketown of police offering young women to white male patrons for sex. There were reports heard from Townsville of Aboriginal women being assaulted in the watch house, as well as threats of rape. There was evidence presented from New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland of Aboriginal girls being ‘abused with sexist and racist language by being referred to as “black sluts”, “black molls” etc., and evidence of them being assaulted’. In the silences that shroud the disappearance of Aboriginal women from national discourse, there are also silences that emerge to protect perpetrators, especially those in uniform.
The act of disappearing works to conceal, to barricade the silence already enforced through representation, and to minimise the issue of the disappearance of Aboriginal women and girls. It keeps the cries of families out of sight and refocuses the violence from the state and its processes on the communities themselves. In the case of Lynette Daley, whose two killers were only charged after a Four Corners report and public outrage, Professor Marcia Langton wrote: ‘I fear the message that this case sends: that there may be no repercussions for assaulting us. Some will think it is “open season”.’ This is not a hyperbolic claim. The failure by police, the courts and the state to acknowledge that racial violence is occurring, that Aboriginal women are specifically targeted, and that the processes of ‘justice’ are set up against families, shows us that Aboriginal women are not protected by a state that has enacted the most brutal harms upon us. It suggests that there is something more sinister at play in the act of disappearing: how it provides conditions for impunity.
I do not know how to define a concept of ‘justice’ in cases of disappeared Aboriginal women. So often the focus is carceral, and yet we know that the carceral systems are set up on disappearance, and specifically Indigenous disappearance. Instead of reproducing the same colonial logics of those conspiring in these acts of disappearance, we must formulate different methods of writing that can be used as weapons for families in the ongoing fight and as tools for repatriation, not just in fighting to repatriate the women physically, but also their memories, buried under the weight of 200 years of stereotyping.
I find a concept of ‘black justice’ in the fight of the families. Disappearance is predicated on the idea of disconnection. By rupturing connection, you rupture ties to community and place, but so often I see this as a failed project because even though the women may not be here physically, there are ways the family brings them back, and brings them closer, through acts of presencing. It can be the photos on display in the court room, or in the hands of the mother in the first row. It can be the way they are grieved for, how they are mourned. I see black justice as the chanting of spirit; the spirit that has never disappeared, still exists and is felt across the waters and caught on the wind. Black justice is the families who bring their loved ones back from those spaces of disappearance, who say that these women do not ‘cease to exist’ but are always present.
To understand the violence of silence and silencing, we must first understand what has been silenced. And to understand, we must first listen to the families of women who have disappeared and, most critically, listen to Aboriginal women. We must do so by remembering that the acts perpetrated against them do not define them. What defines them is not their absence but their presence, which is never lost, despite continuing attempts, but lives on in the memories they leave behind, and those who continue to fight for their return. •