Brighton trucker offers a message and sanctuary for Indigenous women

You might see Elizabeth Johnson’s semi-tractor trailer traveling the U.S. interstate highways, especially between Colorado and Nebraska.

And if you do see it, there’s no way you can miss Johnson’s message.  The entire trailer carries the simple direct message: “Invisible No More.”

It’s a message meant to bring attention to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women whose cases are unsolved.

Johnson — a member of the Ho-Chunk Tribal Nation of Nebraska — has been spreading the message since 2017.

“My message as a woman is, if any woman sees this semi-truck and needs help, me and my dog Delilah will help you to safety,” Johnson said. “Knock on my semi-truck door.”

There are an estimated 506 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women across the country. And that’s likely an undercount due to bad data, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. Of that number, 128 of the women are considered missing, while 280 were known murdered. Another 98 are cases of unknown status, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

The group surveyed 71 police stations and one state agency and found 5,712 missing and murdered Indigenous cases were reported in 2016. But of those, only 116 were logged in a Justice Department database.

According to the National Institute of Justice, as of May 2023, 84.3% more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience violence in their lifetime. Victimization of American Indian and Native woman is 1.2 times higher than white women.

Johnson and her family moved to Winnebago in Nebraska when she was five, and she was raised as a tribal member of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk tribe and given the name Rainbow Woman.

She left home when she was in her preteens and has kept moving.

“I don’t know if God would bless me to go further in my trucking industry or this is the end of my travels, but when I see family, I want to make an apple pie,” Johnson said.

Nebraska is always her home, she said, but so is Colorado because her son and grandchildren live in Brighton. She spends half her time with them.

Johnson started her mission because she was a victim of abuse herself. It was a two-way abusive situation, she said:  He was abusive to her, but she fought back.

“He would put me on his lap with a knife at my throat,” Johnson said. “It was a toxic relationship. I left, and I was done. As soon that door closed, God, or wherever you want to believe, started to open other doors for me.”

She had worked as a construction driver in the summer and fall. She was laid off in the winter but guaranteed to return in the summer. Even so,  she said she needed a more consistent job, and she needed reliable transportation to do that. She found a pick-up truck she liked and approached a bank looking for a loan.

“They never wanted to give me a loan, but I told them if you don’t give me a loan, I’m going to go somewhere else,” she said. “This is income that comes to your bank and comes back out. They gave me the loan, and I purchased a brand-new Silverado. When I purchased the truck, that was when I left the man. I thought I was going to die leaving him and was heartbroken, but I left.”

Johnson said she drove the Silverado for a while, and although it was nice to drive a cute truck, she was still broke.

“I went back to the bank and asked for a loan to trade off the Silverado for a used semi to make money,” she said. “I told the banker it was a win-win. I could make money at the same cost Silverado. The woman sat across from me and said, ‘I’m going do it for you’. Usually, they didn’t give business loans.”

That opened a door for Johnson, and she started her trucking company, Ho-Chunk Trucking, in 2017. After a couple of years, she was able to upgrade and buy a new semi-truck. Then, after a couple’s years of hauling other companies’ trailers, she took out another loan and purchased her own trailer in 2020.

“I wanted my own trailer because women in the industry are treated badly. It’s a whole other story,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that once she had a trailer, she started thinking about it as a platform for other Native American women.

“I went through hell and back. What is the message I wanted to say to the world?” she said.

Johnson decided to do a custom wrap on her trailer with a message about Indigenous women. She also included pictures of her family dressed in regalia and a friend dancing pow-pow and included information about 500 gone missing or murdered women.

One photo, showing a woman with a red hand over her mouth, is her niece Jalisa Horn who was left for dead from abuse and had to crawl to get help. Horn agreed to add her photo to draw attention to the message.

Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 22-150,  a law requiring official reports of missing indigenous people within eight hours. Missing children must be reported to law enforcement within two, under the law.

The act also requires the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to work on investigating missing or murdered indigenous persons and also work with federal, state, and local law enforcement to effectively investigate the cases.

In addition, an alert system and an agency called Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives are responsible for reporting and improving the investigation of missing and murdered Indigenous women and addressing injustice in the criminal justice system.

This story was previously published by Colorado Community Media and is being republished from AP StoryShare.

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