According to the United States Justice Department, Native American women are ten times more likely to be murdered than non-native women. More than one in three has been raped, or suffered attempted rape, and more than 80 percent will experience violence at some point in their lives. Confronting the realities of this crisis, the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana opened its doors to girls, teaching them how to protect and defend themselves in the fight for respect, justice, and survival. The club’s work and the young women’s stories are the subject of the new ESPN Films documentary short, “Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible”. (watch trailer above)
Directed by Kristen Lappas and Tom Rinaldi, “Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible” documents the story of the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club, opened in 2003 by Frank Kipp, a third generation boxer of Blackfeet descent and a former welterweight. According to the ESPN Films’ press release, “Frank, who was born and raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, and worked as a probation officer there, witnessed the damage to its women and girls firsthand. It scarred him, and his people. He decided to fight back, in the way he most understood.”
The gym has trained over 500 boxers on the reservation, “but for Frank, over time, its most important fighters were the young women and girls, including his daughter Donna, who came in search of more than a heavy bag. They sought a way to protect themselves, and preserve their hopes.”
The saying is common on reservations across America: A Native American woman who disappears goes missing twice; first, when her body vanishes. Then, when her story does.
The alarming statistics above are compounded by the number of indigenous women who go missing every year across the United States. In 2019 alone, “nearly 5,600 Native American women were reported missing, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times. In the state of Montana, 73 indigenous women and girls have gone missing in the past two years.
On the Blackfeet Reservation these numbers are not data points; they are the experiences and stories, of lives and families, of loss and pain, like that of Ashley Loring Heavyrunner. “Her family still searches for her across the vast sweep of the reservation where she disappeared in June 2017, as her sister Kimberly fights for recognition and justice in the face of collective indifference from tribal and federal law enforcement and state and national government.”
Ashley’s vanishing is context, and cause, for the girls at the Boxing Club—and the film tracks two promising fighters in their time at the gym. “Donna Kipp, Frank’s daughter, is determined to qualify for the Junior Olympics, but faces challenges beyond her opponents in the ring, testing her resolve, and deepening her motivation, to prevail. Mamie Kennedy is among the youngest and most ferocious fighters Frank has ever seen in his 18 years as a trainer. But Mamie’s greatest fight is symbolic of so many other girls on the reservation—as she struggles with deep family dysfunction, the temptation of drinking and drugs, and her own uncertainty as a boxer.”
Beyond the technical boxing and self-defense skills they learn in the Club’s ring, girls and young women of the Blackfeet Nation are empowered to fight “for respect, identity and acknowledgment”, while fighting for their survival.
Lead Photo: Donna Kipp; Credit to Seventh Movement. Image courtesy of ESPN Films.