Trigger Warning: This story includes references to domestic violence.
Iola “Sissy” Johnston is a Chippewa Cree woman incarcerated at Montana Women’s Prison. She recently sat down with the Montana Innocence Project to share her story and speak about an important unjust conviction issue behind the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous women in Montana: criminalizing survival.
Sissy grew up in a large, traditional Native family. She has fond memories of falling asleep to her mom reading stories from the Cree Bible. She also has memories of the violence that surrounded her at all times. Sissy was abused by her father and siblings. The youngest and smallest, she endured horrific violence.
Sissy left home at 16. She became a mom and later a proud grandmother, but proximity to violence continued to impact her life. She is convicted of a violent crime herself, but like many incarcerated Indigenous peoples, her criminality is not simple. It is informed by colonialism and intergenerational trauma.
Colonization and Violence
StrongHearts, a Native-run helpline for domestic violence and sexual abuse, defines colonialism as “the act of domination involving the subjugation of one people to another. It’s the practice of gaining full or partial control over another country and its Indigenous peoples, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. In the process, colonizers impose their religion, economics, and cultural practices on others.”
StrongHearts, while not excusing violence, explains that it’s prevalent in Indigenous communities because trauma resulting from the extreme violence enacted by European settlers still exists within people today through a process called epigenetics. Just as physical traits are passed through generations, trauma is too.
“While a newly researched topic, epigenetic research has led to findings that trauma has been chemically etched into the DNA of survivors,” StrongHearts’ website reads. “The signature of oppression, abuse, starvation, and genocide was written into the epigenetic code of every Native American. … Domestic violence isn’t a Native American tradition, it was introduced through colonization. Domestic violence manifested over generations of Native Americans being enslaved and raped by European settlers. Violence was so ingrained into the fabric of everyday life that our ancestors not only succumbed to it, they were forced to assimilate to it.”
Sissy echoes this sentiment. She said violence often results from not knowing how to cope with inequity and feeling frustrated by her lack of tools to exist in a colonized society.
“We get violent because we don’t know how to express ourselves,” Sissy said. “… It’s hard to take how we feel when we don’t really know how we feel a lot of times. And then we have to turn it into words to express to somebody that we don’t know, ‘Hey, here are my boundaries.’ We don’t even know our own boundaries. It’s very confusing. It’s very hard. And I think that’s why a lot of us turn to, just hit them. Then they’ll understand.”
In her book “Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality,” Luana Ross explains that crimes committed by Indigenous peoples must be examined through societal and historical lenses.
“Law has repeatedly been used in this country to coerce racial/ethnic group deference to Euro-American power,” the book reads. “Understanding this history of colonization is essential because Native criminality/deviancy must be seen within the context of societal race/ethnic relations; otherwise, any account of crime is liable to be misleading. … A thorough analysis of Native criminality must include the full context of the criminal behavior—that is their victimization and the criminalization of Native rights by the United States government.”
For Sissy and many others convicted of violent crimes, the full context is that she acted violently after a lifetime of others being violent to her. Sissy does not dismiss the seriousness of her actions; rather, she vulnerably shares her story and perspective so people can understand why an Indigenous woman whose life has been marked by victimization would be violent.
“As a Native American woman, I’ve learned that if someone’s coming at me, I’ve got to be physically violent with them to get them off, to get them away from me,” Sissy said. “Well, now that just put me in the position where I’m the aggressor. I’m the villain because I’m using violence to protect myself. What are we supposed to do? One, we grew up knowing that. And two, what are you supposed to do when somebody’s coming at you? … Anything evil’s going to escalate. Your brain is finally going to click and say, ‘I need to defend myself.’”
Colonization and Convictions
America’s criminal legal system is not designed to support people like Sissy. In fact, it does the opposite. As StrongHearts explained, an aspect of colonization is imposing practices on the colonized. In the context of criminal justice, Sissy said this looks like expecting people to understand and follow rules without any direction.
“There are rules that are unspoken,” Sissy said. “And now they’re going to get enforced on you, and you’ve got to guess. It’s not like they have a book. It’s not like someone is saying, ‘Here’s the door. Go ahead, and step through.’ No, it’s more like they are locking the door, so you can’t get out of that confused place. … And I think that’s the best way to oppress anybody. Keep them confused.”
“Locking the door” includes not providing meaningful or culturally appropriate resources and enacting harsher sentences on and disproportionately incarcerating Indigenous peoples. More than 30 percent of the people imprisoned at MWP are Native.
MTIP is thankful to Sissy for sharing her expertise on the complex issue of criminalized survival. Understanding how this form of injustice persists and identifying solutions is a priority for MTIP, and voices like Sissy’s are invaluable to that process. She hopes her vulnerability will inspire others to share their stories.
“We know what the problem is, and we know how we got there,” Sissy said. “We lived through it. So, let’s find a solution. What can we do to make it better? And it’s not just me, let’s ask someone else what they think. Let’s start sharing this and getting everybody incorporated together. We need to teach people to be loud about how they feel.”
StrongHearts Native Helpline 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483) is a safe, anonymous, and confidential domestic and sexual violence helpline for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, offering culturally-appropriate support and advocacy.