On a Healing Journey

Alastair Mullholland
February 6, 2023

Hate crimes can take many forms and are defined as crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender or gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Hate crimes more often than not involve violence. It could be argued then that Indigenous peoples have been the victims of hate crimes since the arrival of European colonizers, however during the most recent decades indigenous women of Mexico, Canada, and the United States have been the most affected by hate crimes. This is because of the fact that they have disproportionally been forced into sex trafficking, sexually assaulted, and/or murdered. In addition, an upsetting number of missing women reported by tribal officials are not even ever recorded by the Department of Justice.  A movement to bring an end to this violence and help heal the associated trauma has formed and it is called Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).  For 2 years now Nicole Merton has been helping indigenous persons begin the process of healing from the trauma of sexual assault, domestic violence, and missing and murdered family and friends.

Merton is a Cum Laude graduate of Cal State Fullerton. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Photography and Experimental Media in 2021. Merton is also indigenous from the Isleta Pueblo. For her final project she decided to photograph indigenous victims of sexual assault and domestic violence and also loved one effected by MMIW and MMIP (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons). She explained, “I want to use my art to bring awareness.”

In addition to awareness, Merton uses her art to help bring healing. When she first meets with survivors of trauma she begins with a sage smudge and talks with them a while. She shares with them that she is also a survivor. Her goal is to make them feel comfortable. She plays to different songs that she has discovered help people move through different emotions. Then she has them paint their hand and place it over their face after which she takes her photos. This is followed by asking them to write a statement in their handwriting about who they are and their experience. All of these steps together can take an average of 2 hours and are each important as it provides one with a sense of closure. During the year of her graduation project, she photographed 75 women and children. After the first year she began receiving more and more communications from victims or their family members from all over the country and Canada. She has also expanded her project to children, men, and two spirit. She now travels with her husband and two children, ages 12 and 6, full time all around to meet and help people heal. She does this largely on their own budget. Recently she has travelled to Kansas, Colorado, Montana, and South Dakota. Merton doesn’t intend to stop soon, she proclaimed, “I’m not done ‘till all the voices are heard. Sometimes people are not ready but I want them to know that I’m always here for when they are.”

Admittedly she did not know much about the movement at first but she dove in to the subject reading books, listening to podcasts, social media accounts, and documentaries. She recommends that people check out these podcasts, www.podchaser.com/podcasts/we-are-resilient-an-mmiw-true-4017023 and www.takentheseries.com.  She also recommends the following groups that are doing good work: www.risinghearts.org, www.nativewomenswilderness.org/mmiw, www.mmiwusa.org, Indigenous Women Rising OC, www.sovereign-bodies.org, www.somebodysdaughter.com, and www.csvanw.org/mmiw. If you’d like to learn more, see her gallery, and/or support Merton with her MMIP project, then you can check out her website at nicolemerton.com.