WAPATO, Wash. — The powerful drumming and singing of Northwest Medicine Horse filled the conference center of The Campbell Farm on Saturday as relatives and friends of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls gathered for support and healing.
Formed in 1999 on the Yakama Indian reservation as a sobriety group, Northwest Medicine Horse is just getting back to performing after one of its founders died a year and a half ago, said Guy Gregg, lead drummer, in opening the MMIWG Healing Together Vigil. The afternoon event was hosted by Roxanne White and Cissy Strong Reyes.
“Roxanne requested us to do an honor song for the women,” Gregg said.
About 50 people attended Saturday’s event, which included a small group activity, art build and poster making, an optional talking circle, candle-lighting and release of paper lanterns with messages to loved ones.
“This isn’t a conference. This is for us here — this is a healing event,” said White, an advocate for families of missing and murdered indigenous women and men who speaks on the issue throughout the United States.
White is also a cousin of Rosenda Sophia Strong, who is Reyes’ sister. Strong, 31, was last seen Oct. 2 by family when she left Wapato with a friend in an older Nissan car to go to Legends Casino in Toppenish. Saturday’s event helped raise funds for a search and reward for information on Strong’s whereabouts or location.
“He said he took her home, but he didn’t,” Reyes said of the friend. “She’d never leave home without telling us.
“I’m going to be her voice until I find her.”
She and Strong were best friends, Reyes said, and the family wants closure. Their brother, Christopher Strong, has supported her and spoken, participating alongside her in other events such as the Women’s March on Yakima on Jan. 19.
“I hope something good comes of this,” he said as his eyes welled and his voice broke. “My sister had bad days, but my sister was still a person. She’s missed.
“I want to thank you all for being here. It really touches me and my family.”
Like Reyes and Strong, countless people have been affected by the long-standing epidemic of violence involving missing and murdered Native women and men across the United States. On the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation, the exact number of missing and murdered women and men is unknown.
“A lot of pain and hurt has been done with our people,” Ne’sha Jackson said after offering an opening prayer. She was appreciative of those who attended Saturday and is glad more people are speaking out on the issue.
“Just your presence in this particular gathering is so deeply important. It makes my heart glad that each of one of you have taken the time.”
“We want justice. We want an answer. We want something done,” she added.
Gerald George, who performed with Northwest Medicine Horse, urged others to remain hopeful as he spoke about his relative Felina Metsker.
“She was missing and murdered. We just buried her a few weeks ago,” he said of Metsker, a Harrah woman who died nearly three years ago. Her killer was recently convicted.
George encouraged Strong’s family, and others with missing and murdered relatives, that there’s still hope in their sad situations and that they will get answers.
“Keep your prayers strong and pray for that break,” George said, “even for the ones responsible for this. Maybe they will come forward.”
Others honored missing and murdered loved ones with memorial altars. Jolene Barrientes of Yakima, originally from Browning, Mont., set up a table with information about four people who were murdered, and whose killers were never convicted or received only light sentences — her brother Leonard Eagle, stabbed to death in 2015 in Butte, Mont.; Matthew Grant, who went missing and was found murdered in Browning in late 2016; Brittany MadPlume of Browning, who was found beaten in a car but whose cause of death was ruled as acute ethanol intoxication; and Barrientes’ brother-in-law Tobin Barrientes, who was shot to death in Burien in May 1998. His killer served two years, she said.
“Two years is an injustice for taking a man’s life,” she said.
A common thread running among the remarks and activities Saturday was a plea for people to break the silence and help families and friends get resolution and justice.
“We need people to come forward. ... Somebody please say something,” White said. “When we stay silent, they get to keep murdering us. We have the power as a community to break the silence.”
Reyes won’t stop until she has answers. But as she pleaded for information about her sister, she also encouraged others to keep in touch with their families.
“Let your family know where you’re going. Tell them you love them,” she said.