Ho-Chunk trucker spreads MMIP message, offers safe haven from domestic violence
Elizabeth Johnson's semi-tractor trailer stands out from the typical flow of highway traffic. The trailer bears striking images of Native women in powwow regalia, one with a red handprint over her mouth, alongside the words: "Invisible No More."
For Johnson, a member of the Ho-Chunk Tribal Nation of Nebraska, her message is two-fold: spreading awareness of the ongoing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) crisis and serving as a safe haven for any woman who needs help.
"If any woman sees my semi-truck and needs help, me and my dog will help you to safety," Johnson told Native News Online. "Knock on my semi-truck door."
Johnson is a one-woman show as the owner and sole employee of Ho-Chunk Trucking. She and her dog Delihla spend their days transporting goods in the western United States, mostly between Colorado and Nebraska. For Johnson, the journey to purchasing her trailer and starting her business was deeply personal.
Johnson left an abusive relationship in 2017 and purchased her first semi-tractor trailer, using her Silverado pickup truck as collateral. At the time, she was broke and needed a reliable income source.
"I told the banker, 'Look, I do look really cute in this truck, but eventually, you'll have to take it back. Or you could let me trade it in and let me buy this semi-trailer for $15,000 more, and I can make some money,'" Johnson said. "She laughed and said, 'Sure. Let's do it.'"
After three years of hauling trailers for other companies, Johnson knew it was time to buy her own trailer. In 2020, after purchasing her trailer, she realized that it wasn't just a means to haul goods and make a living; it was a beacon.
"If the creator, God, the universe, whatever you choose to believe in didn't have a hand in my business, I don't know who did," Johnson said.
'I knew I did the right thing.'
In 2021, Johnson collected images from family and friends in powwow regalia, the most prominent of which is her niece, and began working with a graphics company in North Dakota to bring her vision to life. Within two weeks, the trailer was finished.
She arrived to pick up the newly wrapped trailer at dawn. As she describes seeing the trailer for the first time, her voice fills with emotion.
"When I turned that corner, it was sitting there, and I just it was breathtaking," she said. "It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. I knew then that I did the right thing."
"For all of the abuse I've endured in my life and all of the wrong I ever did, this is the only good thing I could give back to the universe."
'You're still worthy of love.
Johnson hopes that her truck helps to educate people who don't know about the MMIP crisis and violence against Native women.
While there is no comprehensive data on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in the United States, the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are as many as 4,200 unsolved MMIP cases.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that more than 84.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1 percent who have experienced sexual violence.
Johnson is frequently approached by people asking about her truck.
"I was in Illinois the other day, and a lady came up to me and said, 'Can you please tell me about your truck and what it means?'" Johnson said. "So I broke it down for her, and she said, 'Oh my god, I never knew.' It gives people the opportunity to get educated.”
The most prominent image on the trailer is Johnson's niece, Jalisa Horn, a mother of six who was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road in 2022. Horn crawled for help and survived.
Johnson, too, is a survivor of domestic violence and speaks candidly about the abuse she endured at the hands of her ex-husband.
"He would make me sit on his lap and hold a knife to my throat," she said. "He told me that if I moved, he would cut my throat."
Like many Native people, Johnson experienced apathy when she reported the abuse to law enforcement.
"I would be sitting there, black and blue, with a busted lip, and he would tell them (the police) that I was crazy, high on drugs, bipolar and off of my medication or just making trouble, and they would let him go," she said.
"I wished that somebody believed me or cared about me enough to say, 'Hey, come here, I'll protect you.'"
Those harrowing experiences inspired Johnson to use her truck as a safe place for women who are being abused. She encourages anyone who sees her truck and needs help to approach her.
"I'll call 911, and I will drive you away from there," she said. "Just because you're in this life, you know, you can change it. You can do something positive for yourself. It (abuse) doesn't make you garbage. It doesn't make you bad. It doesn't make you unworthy. You're still worthy of love. And to be honored and cherished because you're a woman."
Johnson has two and a half years left on the loan for her trailer. Her long-term vision is a fleet of 20 trailers, wrapped with the same arresting images, crisscrossing the nation, hauling goods and carrying the message that the MMIP crisis needs our attention.
"That is my ultimate dream," she said.