MVSKOKE RESERVATION- For Elizabeth Johnson (Ho-Chunk) activism and livelihood are intertwined, and on the road. Johnson owns and operates Ho-Chunk Trucking and has used the original white sides of her trailer as a blank canvas to raise awareness for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW). On Oct 4, Johnson spoke with Mvskoke Media’s Emvpanaya about her work and activism.
After a few years of driving for other people Johnson purchased her own semi, and a few years after that she purchased her own trailer. She knew when she got the plain trailer she wanted a custom wrap that somehow featured her culture. Gaining inspiration from friends and family, she had one custom made with images of Nebraska Ho-Chunk women in dance and pow wow regalia.
However, one woman is prominently placed, her face bearing the red handprint over her mouth that has become the symbol for the MMIW movement. That’s Johnson’s niece, Jalisa (Winnebago) and one of the main inspirations for the truck. In addition to the images, the sides are emblazoned with the messages, “For 500 years, countless Native women have been murdered or gone missing,” “Stop killing our sisters,” and “INVISIBLE NO MORE.”
Johnson is driven in her desire to bring awareness to the harrowing realities of violence faced by Native women. Johnson shared, “The entire purpose of this semi is so that the entire world that I travel in knows that there are Native women out here missing and that the government or FBI is not really doing anything.”
Encouragement and Conversations
Johnson has positive support on the road from the Native community. She shared that the kind of encouragement she receives is overwhelmingly supportive, “From Native people, it’s a positive, you know, anything can happen from stopping, waving, taking video of me, talking and telling me that they love it, they’ve never seen it, it’s powerful… about time. All Natives have nothing but encouraging words to say to me as far as their appreciation to what it is I’ve chosen to do with my platform.”
Reception from non-Native people has ranged from supportive and encouraging. She’s received comments like “It’s beautiful!”and “Keep spreading the word!” to the curious. She explained, “A lot of them are curious, they don’t understand, they don’t know, and they want to know. They even track you down and follow you into parking lots and ask about the trailer, ‘What does it mean? Why does it have the red hand?’ And then they’re like ‘Wow’.”
While the conversations and encounters have been supportive of Johnson’s work and message, one encounter left her admittingly dumbfounded. Johnson relayed that during a rest stop in Shawnee, she parked in a lot at a Walmart off the interstate and noticed a couple looking at the images on the trailer and expected to have a conversation or exchange. She engaged them by stating, “It’s beautiful, huh?”
When the woman replied, “it’s scary,” and promptly got back in their car, Johnson was at a loss and recognised the missed opportunity. “I was left kind of dumbfounded but inside I wanted to say. It is scary, the thought of another human being snatching up or murdering and assaulting Native women is scary… to be in a world that you’re so unprotected that you are looked at as so unimportant and that you don’t matter… that’s what I wanted to say. That was probably the only negative experience”
According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study, more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3 percent) have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1 percent who have experienced sexual violence.
While these numbers are startling, the situation is still much worse. According to the 2008 National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) conducted by the National Institute of Justice Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than half of violent victimizations against women are ever reported. The data is even more startling for Indigenous women.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report by the Urban Indian Health Institute of the Seattle Indian Health Board (UIHI) found several reasons for the lack of representative data on violence against Native women and girls. The study examined law enforcement records, state and national databases, media coverage, social media posts, and community and family accounts.
They found that racial misclassifications in race, poor relationships between law enforcement and Native communities, lack of record keeping, underreporting in the media, and an absence of relationships between journalists and Native communities coalesce in creating a void in representative data on Native women and girls.
For example, they found biases in media coverage not only show a lack of representation, but also perpetuate violence. In their study, they found that only 25% of cases of missing or murdered women and girls were covered by local, regional, or national media, and less than 7% were covered more than three times. They also found nearly 40% of coverage referred to drug or alcohol use and 31% referenced the victim’s criminal history. It stated, “…media sources have used language that could be perceived as violent and victim-blaming in their coverage of MMIW cases. This type of coverage can also perpetuate negative stereotypes of American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls.”
Big Bertha and the Girls
These numbers reflect the social context in which Johnson drives her truck. They also represent her personal background. After a nine year marriage where she survived physical, emotional, and mental abuse, owning and operating her own trucking company was a lifeline.
Johnson explained, “I was broke and I went home and I heard this voice that said, ‘Look for a semi,’ and it kept bothering me, so I gave in… I traded in a new Silverado for a semi because I knew the bank would have to take the truck back, but if I could get something I could make money with I could make the payments. They gave me a business loan. They didn’t do those, but I talked them into it and they did.” That’s how Johnson came to own “Big Bertha and the Girls,” the semi and trailer that make up her solo trucking company.
Johnson has invested her life into spreading the message but times are currently hard for her. Post-Covid fuel rates have risen, the price of shipping has gone down, and truck repairs have eaten away at her credit. “I’m at a place here where I’m looking at possible bankruptcy, I’m not sure how much longer I can keep Big Bertha and the Girls on the road… I can’t pay my bills, so I started a gofundme, as a last resort to try to keep my trailer moving on the road, and I don’t know how that’s gonna go. I can’t get ahead here.” Johnson said.
While she would like more business, the opportunity to get free from debt incurred from mechanical services would go a long way in keeping her on the road and spreading awareness of MMIW. In addition to her Gofundme page, she is working on a tiered sponsorship program. Sponsors can get social media and reporting shout-outs, logos and branding on Big Bertha and the Girls, and a guest speaking engagement.
Even through the strained financial hardships, Johnson has remained tenacious in her commitment to spreading awareness of MMIW. “The hand itself is a symbol of humanity and in this case it’s an Indigenous person. You know, human life. The color red is a powerful color of success or turmoil. In this case, the bloodshed of a missing Indigenous person and its being across her mouth is letting people know that we are not going to be quiet anymore. We’re going to start speaking up, we’re going to fight and be heard. Stop killing our women. Men go missing as well. Stop killing our people.”
To visit Johnson’s gofundme, visit her official page.
To learn more about Ho-Chunk Trucking, visit the Facebook page.