TOPPENISH — They just don’t want their loved ones forgotten.
There were plenty of reasons family and friends of missing and murdered indigenous people organized a vigil Sunday at the Yakama Nation Toppenish Community Center — solidarity, pleas for information and justice, a desire to educate the public — but above all, they just wanted to say their loved ones mattered, that their lives can’t just be discarded without a thought.
“We have murdered relatives across the nation, and nobody’s been paying attention except for us,” said Roxanne White, an activist for missing and murdered indigenous people. “We know it. We live here. We’re the ones who are burying our relatives all the time.”
White, an enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe who was born and raised on the Yakama Nation Reservation, saw her aunt, Karen White, killed in 1996. That her aunt’s killer was charged with manslaughter and given less than five years in prison left her wanting greater justice.
“She didn’t get a trial,” White said. “I didn’t get to testify.”
She was one of several speakers at Sunday’s event with similar stories of loved ones who have disappeared or been killed. Violence against indigenous people, especially women, has only recently become a well-known issue nationally. But it’s something Native American women have known about their whole lives.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control reported that homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native American women between the ages of 10 and 24. The U.S. Department of Justice has reported Native American women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than other Americans.
The event’s primary organizer, Cissy Strong Reyes, knows those aren’t just statistics. Her sister, Rosenda Strong of Toppenish, went missing Oct. 2, 2018, and was found murdered in July. That made the issue personal.
“I knew about it, but I didn’t really pay attention until my sister went missing,” Reyes told the crowd of about 50 who braved icy roads to be at the event. “It breaks my heart that there are so many missing out there. ... I needed to let everybody know in my community that she is loved, whether she was on drugs or alcohol, she was loved.”
No arrests have been made in the case. Few of the dozens of cases of missing and murdered Native people, along with mysterious deaths on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation, have been solved.
Even when it’s clear who is at fault, justice can be hard to find, said Jolene Barrientes of Yakima, whose brother Leonard Keith Eagle of the Blackfeet Nation was killed in Butte, Mont., in 2015. Barrientes told the crowd her brother’s killer is known but has never been charged.
“The judicial system has failed us,” she said. “That’s why all of us are here; the judicial system has failed us in one way or another.”
Like others in the crowd, she has found solidarity and resolve among others who have lost loved ones.
“I want to thank Cissy for inviting me to be a part of this event,” Barrientes said. “We both know what it feels like to lose our best friend. We both know what it feels like to hit a brick wall when you’re fighting for justice and you don’t know what to do next. ... So I come here, and I bring awareness, and I say his name, Leonard Keith Eagle, because I don’t want him to be swept under the rug like they’ve been trying to do for the last four and a half years.”
Like Reyes and White and the other surviving family members at the event, she pledged to continue the effort.
“This is the only thing I can do to try to get through the bad times, I guess,” Reyes said. “The holidays are the worst. My sister was a good, loving person that’s missed every day. And this is the only way I can feel like she’s here, you know. I wake up missing her every day. She was my best friend.”