ESPN’s Blackfeet Boxing: Not InvisibleShows Native Girls Taking Back Strength Amid Violence Epidemic
The documentary sheds light on an ongoing issue.
This article was published in Teen Vogue on 7/2/20.
“My greatest fear is that we won’t ever find my sister, but we will always search for Ashley. For the rest of our lives, if we have to,” Kimberly Loring Heavyrunner says, as the camera sweeps over the vast expanse of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Long grasses sway in the plains wind as she and a small group of others tread and retread the land. Her sister, Ashley Loring Heavyrunner was just 20 years old when she disappeared from the reservation, now three years ago in the summer of 2017. Her family is still searching for her to this day.
According to the Sovereign Bodies Institute, Ashley represents just one of the many of Indigenous women and girls in Montana that are missing, murdered, or whose status is unknown. Even more disturbing, Native American women comprise just 3% of Montana’s total population, yet they account for 30% of all cases involving missing women.
It is in this harrowing context, the worldwide epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, that the events of ESPN’s documentary Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible, directed by Kirsten Lappas, unfold. Here we find Frank Kipp, a third-generation boxer, amateur welterweight and former probation officer on the Blackfeet Reservation. Since founding the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club in 2003, he’s gone on to train more than 500 young people in the sport of boxing and self-defense in response to the ongoing of violence against Native women. His daughter, Donna Kipp, is among his students.
“My dad started the club for the youth and the young adults on the reservation to keep them out of trouble, to keep them away from drugs and alcohol. Over time, the club became more of a refuge for young girls and women in the community. It became a place for girls like me to learn how to stand up for themselves, provide new outlets beyond the status quo and ultimately learn how to protect and defend themselves,” Donna Kipp writes for ESPN.
The U.S Department of Justice found in 2012 that American Indian women on some reservations face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average. It is an epidemic that is pervasive across tribal communities, and, according to the tribal organization Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, four out of five of Native women are affected by violence today.
There is no one cause or one solution to the violence against Native women, where a combination of historical and generational trauma, lack of resources, and present day systemic hurdles have taken hold. “You can’t talk about missing people without also addressing alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, child abduction, human trafficking. There’s all these social problems on the reservation that just feed off of each other,” says Misty LaPlant, a former Blackfeet Police Officer in the documentary.
“I think predators know to come to our community. There is a sense of reservations being a lawless place these hotbeds of violence against women and unfortunately the government and law enforcement back that up by not pursuing justice and by not holding these perpetrators accountable,” Annita Lucchesi, the executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute says.
In a parallel storyline, the film also traces the experiences of another young boxer, Mamie Kennedy, one of Blackfeet Club’s most promising boxers. “Mamie’s just one of those kind of girls who’s just tough as royal hell. You look at her eyes and you know that she’s a fighter, she’s warlike. She could be an Olympic champion, she’s got the gift,” Frank Kipp says. But Kennedy’s journey to the 2019 Junior Olympics stalls amid a traumatic family environment and alcohol use. Her future as a boxer becomes uncertain.
That these young women and girls may have to quite literally fight for their lives at some point is a harsh reality that is not lost on either Kipp or the young boxers themselves. “It’s scary sometimes for me to walk around the reservation,” Serenity Youngrunningcrane, a 13-year-old boxer at the club says, the words stopping in her throat as tears stream down her cheeks. “One of my siblings got raped.”
Still, the next generation of Native women see boxing as a way of finding strength, confidence and courage in the face of staggering circumstances. “Our girls are strong. If something were to happen to them, they at least have a chance to fight,” Kimberly Heavyrunner says.