Indigenous Writer, Artist, and Survivor Chris Stark Shares Truth and Healing in new book “Carnival Lights”

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Shining a Light on Often-Overlooked Marginalized Populations

When looking at issues of sexual exploitation and abuse, it’s especially important to shine a light on the often-overlooked marginalized populations that are disproportionately affected by sexual violence.

In the United States and Canada especially, indigenous women and girls are severely affected by sexual abuse and violence, including human trafficking, domestic violence, rape, and even murder. These missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) are tragically ignored by larger society, pop culture, and law enforcement. One analysis found:

“While it is difficult to acquire exact statistics on this under-reported and misunderstood crime, the available research indicates extremely high rates of human trafficking in Indigenous communities across North America: “In a study conducted at four sites in the U.S. and Canada, ‘an average of 40 percent of women involved in sex trafficking identified as [Native American] or First Nations,’ yet Native women represent 10 percent or less of the general population in the studied communities;”  and other Canadian research shows that “Indigenous women and girls comprise only 4% of the Canadian population, while the literature reports that they make up 30% to 70% of [trafficking] victims.”

In addition to these disproportional rates of human trafficking, Indigenous women across the continent also “experience violent victimization at a higher rate than any other U.S. population.” In the U.S., for example, “More than 1 in 3 Native American and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime… more than 6 in 10 will be physically assaulted. Native women are stalked more than twice the rate of other women. Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average. Non-Indians commit 88% of violent crimes against Native women.”

Recognizing and Remembering Indigenous Peoples

This extreme violence and overall blind eye toward indigenous people is slowly improving: May 5 has been nationally recognized as MMIW Day, and many states have adopted the second Monday in October as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in place or alongside the traditional US holiday celebrating the discovery of America in an effort to re-center true history, and celebrate the survival and contemporary experiences of Native people.

Celebrating and honoring the past and culture of indigenous voices can also be accomplished through literature, art, and listening to Native voices.

Expert Chris Stark’s Background

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation had the opportunity to speak with Chris Stark, an award-winning writer, researcher, visual artist, national and international speaker with Anishinaabe and Cherokee ancestry. Her first novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was a Lambda Literary Finalist. She is also a co-editor of Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography; and a co-author of the ground-breaking research “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.” Primary research she conducted with Native women survivors of prostitution and trafficking on the ships in Duluth, Minnesota is included in her article “Strategies to Restore Justice for Sex Trafficked Native Women,” published in The Palgrave International Handbook on Trafficking. She is also co-author and co-researcher of “Evidence of Survivor, Agency, and Researcher Collaboration: An Example of an Emerging Model of Survivor Wellbeing.”

Currently, she facilitates art and writing groups at Breaking Free in St. Paul, consults with a variety of local and national organizations, and teaches writing and literature at Anoka Ramsey Community College. She was recently appointed to the Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Taskforce. She has an MFA in Writing and a Master’s in Social Work.

Chris Stark is also the author of a new book Carnival Lights, a sweeping tale of two young Native girls that spans centuries of Minnesota history, and confronts themes of colonialism, sexual violence and exploitation, child abuse, racism, homophobia, and facing the truth of it all. NCOSE recently sat down with the author herself and spoke to her about her new book, confronting truth, and the nature of healing.

Carnival Lights by Chris Stark

NCOSE’s Interview with Chris Stark

NCOSE: Tell us a little bit about Carnival Lights.

Chris: I actually started writing this book 20 years ago. The two main characters came to me when a professor of mine read a short 7-10 page exercise I wrote and he said “you owe it to these characters to finish this story.” I’ve been carrying that responsibility to them and to a lot of other people from my past around with me for a long time, so it was quite an experience to finally be able to finish it.

 It’s set in 1969, all in Minnesota, and it focuses on primarily one Ojibwe family from the 1800s up through 1969 – but there’s all sorts of stories that spin off of that. There are stories that take on issues of colonization, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia – all these big issues that we continue to deal with today. The narrative is particular to Minnesota but in a way it’s a story of America. It’s about sexual violence, it’s about colonization, it’s about domestic violence, it’s about incest, it’s about those things, but it’s about way more than just that. It situates those things in this broader view and understanding of the culture of the United States and the intersections of colonization, racism, homelessness, and all the sexual violence that was brought into indigenous communities by European cultures.

To me, the biggest thing this book is about is love. A lot of times when I hear people talk about this book or some of my other work, they’re focused on the violence, but I wouldn’t be here writing this work if I didn’t have this love from my grandmothers and I didn’t have this sense of ancestral connections to my indigenous ancestors and to the land, the water, and the trees – so it’s really about that, perhaps more than anything.


NCOSE: Who is the target audience for Carnival Lights? Is there an age range?

Chris: It’s interesting about the age range because I wonder about that too. There are high school teachers that are teaching this book. I teach college, I don’t work with high schoolers, and I don’t know anyone too much younger than that should be reading this book, but then again – look at what kids are seeing on TV every day. I wrote this story for the story. How I experienced that was that I had to get this story down with these characters, and be true to that story and those characters and then it goes where it goes, so I don’t write with an audience in mind. I certainly hope that it speaks to indigenous communities, particularly indigenous women. There’s a number of lesbian and gay characters in the book as well, so that’s also important to me. I didn’t sit down and write this book hoping to hit any specific checkmarks – it’s a story unto itself. I think non-native people can learn a lot from this book, about a lot of different things.


NCOSE: You’ve written quite a few books and other literary projects. What inspired you to write Carnival Lights?

Quite honestly, I could say some other things and make myself look less vulnerable – but really it started when I was 4. For me this book is feeling like I have done something for people from my past, for my ancestors, for indigenous people who have experienced these things. This is just about so much more than me. It’s about bringing forward a past through fiction, and the historical research that intertwined with that fiction. It all coalesced into this story – the foreword story is fiction but fiction is often more true than history.

I think this really began when I was 4 years old living up on the land where much of the story is set and surviving pretty horrendous abuse as a little girl on that land. I survived it by connecting with the land and the trees and the ancestral connections that I have through my indigenous ancestry. That’s very real, and I really think that’s where the story began. So for me to finish this story, it was a 20 year process, but really it was like a whole life process. The things that I went through come out in this book – it’s not about me, but the knowledge I carry and hopefully I have a little bit of wisdom to share in this book. I feel like my life is in this book.

My life is much bigger than me – it goes back to my ancestors and the land and the connections between especially the abuse of indigenous people, especially indigenous women, and the abuse of the water and the land. This is all tied together, and if we humans want to heal, and many of us do, we have to go back to the land. We have to go back and see what has been done to the land and we have to heal with and through the land and the water and the rest of creation. I think that’s one thing I really wish the anti-sexual violence movement would situate itself in a much broader view of creation. If we’re talking about the United States, it really has to start with what was done to the indigenous people and what was done to African Americans through slavery and so forth. That has to be brought forward because we aren’t going to get anywhere if we don’t do that kind of real deep spiritual healing.


NCOSE: You’ve mentioned several themes tackled in Carnival Lights such as sexual violence, incest, domestic violence, and more. How does this story connect to broader issues of sexual exploitation?

Chris: There’s a lot of different ways that sexual violence happens in this book. You have the issues of MMIW that we’re dealing with now, along with domestic violence, rape, incest, sex trafficking, and murders of indigenous people as well, including men, in this book.

There are all sorts of ways that my own way of being in the world as a survivor of many different kinds of violence comes through the characters. One of the things I hope people start to absorb from the book is the way this carries through generations and how families have to hide that or survive it – having silence because of sexual and domestic violence and how that impacts generation after generation.

It’s also in the different daily ways of living and observation – walking down the street, if I hear somebody behind me, I’m always looking at the shadows on the ground behind me. It’s not like a paranoia or even a fear, because a lot of women do that, but especially for those of us who have been through a lot of different kinds of sexual violence that comes through in the characters. My hope with that is people can understand how prevalent certain behaviors are for abuse survivors, and have a better understanding through some of those characters in my book how those behaviors can show up in our lives. Not only with increased empathy and compassion but with an understanding of that’s not crazy, that makes sense for that person. That person is reacting in a sensible and logical way based on what that person has experienced and what they can expect from other people and the world generally. Those are some of the smaller things that I really hope people can take and go forward in the work they’re doing, especially any sort of people who are doing direct work with survivors.

I’ve seen it from both sides – when I was in my early 20s trying to find help to deal with what I had gone through, versus now I have an MSW and an MFA and I’ve done all this advocacy for so many years. I still see my “peers” talking about people in really bad ways, and being judgmental and dismissive and not at all understanding. I feel like way too many people doing work around sexual violence issues – social workers, anybody – they have a judgmental, box-like system where they give a label and a disorder to a person, and that person is going to have to be controlled, and this is who that person is going to be for the rest of their life. I was actually told that by a professional who specialized in extreme child abuse when I was 21 years old. I had survived a whole entire childhood of being tortured, and I was told when I was 21 years old by this so-called expert who believed my story: that my life would be like this forever. I didn’t believe him, but it scared the hell out of me. It damaged me, because I had to carry that now along with everything I’d been through. He told me my life was over at 21.

So that’s also a really fervent hope of mine that people can read this and gain some insight, and hopefully deepen their compassion and empathy toward people who have gone through this. The burdens we have to carry and work through from one generation to the next – to have a deeper understanding of that, and compassion and empathy – not pity.


NCOSE: What is the most important message you want readers to walk away with after reading Carnival Lights?

Chris: The strength and beauty of Ojibwe and indigenous ways. The strength, the beauty, the intelligence, and the value of indigenous cultures.


NCOSE: What are some actions or next steps readers can take?

Chris: That of course depends on what each person has connections with, but I certainly think one of the most core issues is to do more reading and further awareness on issues of colonization. We live in a colonial state – every day, we all live in this state. We don’t have to feel guilty about that, but we have to center that and bring it to the table. So learning more deeply about that, because it’s most damaging to indigenous people, but it’s damaging to everyone here. Whether you know it and believe it or don’t, we are destroying where we live. Looking at colonization and the roots of it is crucial to begin to have justice and healing for indigenous people but also for the land and the water and so on.

Beyond that, bringing forward and amplifying indigenous people around sexual violence, MMIW issues, people of color in general, and the intersections of all of these oppressions and dehumanizations – and doing that in a good way and with a good heart, not out of guilt. We all have to go forward together, and we all have to find a way to heal together. The biggest connection in that for me is the land. We’re all human beings and we come from this earth – that’s our center and literally what we walk on. There’s significant power in connecting with the natural world and with the earth. Other than that, all those public policy things that need to be addressed – you have to have indigenous people at the table.


NCOSE: Are there any other takeaways or message you want readers to walk away with after reading Carnival Lights?

Chris: One of the Ojibwe main values is debwe, and that’s truth. That has always been a core motivator of mine ever since I was a very young child. I was going to speak the truth of what was being done to me and to other women and children, and this book is just an extension of that. I don’t want people to feel like this book is going to be too heavy, or it’s about all this sexual violence, because it’s about so many things – and one of them is survival, and cultural resiliency, and cultural survival. I think we live in a dominant culture that really wants to take us as far away from the truth of this country and the truth of what it is to be a human being as it possibly can. Maybe it’s easier to sit down and watch a TV show, then to read literature or read Carnival Lights, because the media can sweep us away into the nothingness of it, but I want to encourage people to pick up Carnival Lights and pick up other books like it because we have to face that truth both outside of ourselves and within ourselves if we really want to heal. Because until we look at and grapple with the truth, we’re not going to find healing. You can’t find healing without walking through the flame.


Support Chris Stark’s Work

Carnival Lights can be purchased through your local bookstore, and also online here.

To read more about author, artist, researcher, and survivor Chris Stark and her incredible work, visit her website here.

Interested in learning more about Chris’s work with the Minnesota MMIW Task Force? A recent report examining the root causes, systemic problems, and potential solutions to violence against indigenous women and girls was published outlining several policy recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature.

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NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.

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The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.

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