During a meeting in White Swan in March 1993, community members pleaded with Jay Inslee, then representing the 4th District in the U.S. House, for more progress on investigations of the violent deaths of 13 women, most of them Native, on the Yakama Reservation.
The mysterious deaths and homicides stretched back to 1980 and, at the time, none had been solved by agencies with jurisdiction.
“We are hoping, Mr. Congressman, that something can be done,” Tribal Council member Clifford Moses said then. “The belief of the Indian race of people is we never rest our mind until we know where our loved one is, whether she was murdered or lost and gone forever.”
On Thursday, the current 4th District representative — Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside — listened as others spoke again about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women on the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation and throughout Indian Country.
Thursday’s roundtable at the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce was a private event for Newhouse to hear about local efforts to address the crisis as well as get feedback on Savanna’s Act and other efforts from the state, tribes, law enforcement and advocacy groups.
Newhouse and fellow U.S. Reps. Norma Torres, D-Calif., and Deb Haaland, D-N.M., introduced the Savanna’s Act legislation in mid-May. Originally introduced in 2017, it stalled in the House in late 2018 after unanimously passing the Senate. It would create new guidelines for reporting and investigation of missing and murdered Native people and improve data collection and communication among law enforcement agencies and families.
Newhouse praised state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, for her efforts two years in a row for better data collection and investigations of missing Native women in Washington state. Thursday’s gathering included Mosbrucker and representatives from the Yakama Nation, Colville Tribes and Puyallup Tribe along with local law enforcement, officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and people whose loved ones are missing or were murdered.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Gina and folks locally,” Newhouse said. “This small gathering today is to focus on some of the great work that’s been happening here in Washington.”
Newhouse mentioned his hope of making real changes and the need to better educate Congress on the issue of missing and murdered Native women. He said he would ask for help on the issue. He envisions having members of the Natural Resources and Judicial committees of the House to hold a field hearing in the state, possibly in Yakima, and “listen to as many people as possible,” he said.
“It was surprising to me to learn what has been happening here over the last 150 years,” Newhouse said.
“Longer than that,” Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot responded.
Whitefoot, a respected Yakama Nation educator and activist for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, was joined at the meeting by her sisters Lila Whitefoot and Marie Tallman Olney. When the March 1993 meeting happened, their sister, Daisey Mae Tallman, who was 29 when last seen, had already been missing for more than five years. They also had a sister who was murdered before that, Lila Whitefoot said.
“Our sister went missing in October 1987,” Olney said of Tallman. “Her clothing was found in a closed area of the reservation.”
And when the 1993 meeting took place, it had been just a few months since the body of Shari Dee Sampson Elwell, 30, was found on Dec. 30, 1992, northwest of White Swan, in a closed portion of the reservation. Like Rozelia Lou (Tulee) Sohappy, 31, whose body was found on March 13, 1989, along the south slope of Ahtanum Ridge north of Brownstown, Elwell had been strangled.
Though Tallman’s belongings were discovered northwest of White Swan, her remains have never been located. Of the 13 cases open when Inslee attended the meeting years before becoming governor, a Yakima man was convicted in two. In another case, a Toppenish man was tried and acquitted. The cold cases were reopened in a two-year probe by the FBI after U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came to the reservation in March 2006 and promised an investigation.
All of the others from that time, and several more cases of missing and murdered women since then, remain unsolved.
Robert Udell, Yakima County’s sheriff, is creating a cold case task force and hopes to get it going this summer. “The first step is to identify these cold cases. We’ve already had people volunteer,” he said. “It’s going to have to take time and funding.”
The sheriff’s office has a history of working closely with the Yakama Nation, Udell said. Communication and sharing of information are critical.
“A big part of it is trust. We need to continue working on that,” he said. “It all comes down to communication and trust.”
Like many at the meeting, Marylee Jones wore red. She and Patsy Whitefoot lead the Yakama Nation’s Iksiks Washanal’a (“The Little Swans”) dance group.
“I can’t do anything about the ones that we’ve lost. I can’t do anything about the situation we’re in now,” Jones said. But she works closely with children and stresses the importance of culturally sensitive education, and encourages young people and others to visit the longhouse and gather traditional foods with her.
Jones joined Patsy and Lila Whitefoot, Olney, Lisa Hannigan and Carolyn DeFord at the front of the room as Patsy Whitefoot sang a woman’s song at the request of Mathew Tomaskin, the legislative liaison for the Yakama Nation.
“The women are warriors as well,” Patsy Whitefoot said.
DeFord works for the Puyallup Tribe Community Domestic Violence Advocacy Program and runs the Missing and Murdered Native Americans Facebook page. She spoke of her mother, Leona LeClair Kinsey, who went missing in October 1999.
“It’s been 20 years and it’s still hard to talk about,” DeFord said. “About three years after my mom disappeared, my cousin was murdered.”
“There’s no resolution to this ambiguous loss,” she added.
For Hannigan, learning that her own family includes women who went missing and died mysteriously has been emotional, but she appreciates the fact that more people are speaking out about the issue.
Her father’s stepsister, Janice Marie Hannigan, was 16 years old when she disappeared in late December 1971. Another relative, Sara Dee Winnier, was 24 when her body was discovered sitting upright in the driver’s seat of a burning car early on July 22, 1985.
“I didn’t know that; it was before I was born,” Hannigan said. “To me, that opened discussion in my family. We’re speaking up. It was just unspoken for a long time.
“I just feel that it is beautiful that I can ask about my aunties who are gone now and try to capture who they were as young ladies before that happened.”