As a Native woman earning a criminal justice degree, Sydney Hill is keenly interested in the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

It’s also personal.

Hill was raped in 1992 and four of her relatives have been assaulted. Some reported the attacks. Others didn’t, she said.

“They have their reasons for not reporting. Some felt that they needed to report it because they didn’t want it to happen to somebody else. That’s how I felt,” said Hill, who is a citizen of the Yakama Nation. She pressed charges and it took four years for the case to go through the tribal court system, she said.

Determined to change the culture and ensure that assault victims and missing persons cases are investigated quickly, Hill plans to attend law school and complete a psychology degree.

She has already started speaking publicly about her experience and supporting others who have suffered sexual violence. She also participates in a group focused on missing and murdered indigenous women.

Convened by the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas counties in February, the nonprofit’s community response team is focused for at least a year on the decadeslong epidemic of violence in which Native women and girls are murdered, go missing and suffer sexual violence at shocking rates throughout the United States.

“I’m a quiet person and I’m pretty shy,” Hill said, but when she was raped, “that experience kind of helped me to find my voice. I had a lot of support from family and friends and professional people like mental health counselors and doctors and nurses, and from my employer.”

A report released in May by the Washington State Patrol said 56 Native women were missing in Washington. And findings released in November by the nonprofit Urban Indian Health Institute, a research arm of the Seattle Indian Health Board, identified 506 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in 71 urban cities.

On the 1.3 million-acre Yakama reservation, the number of missing and murdered indigenous people is unknown. Many disappearances and mysterious deaths remain unsolved. During an FBI investigation spurred by rumors of a serial killer, investigators found as many as 32 cases dating back to 1980.

Finding solutions to such a complex issue is daunting — like “trying to build an airplane in mid-flight,” said Sarah Augustine, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center.

The nonprofit agency trained team members and coordinates with Yakama Nation Behavioral Health Services.

Their goals include obtaining justice for the victims in cold cases and building trust between the community and law enforcement.

“The other is that every single time that a woman or a girl disappears, there is a team there to respond,” Augustine said.

They will work toward those goals for at least a year, possibly longer. Their work may also lead to a team focused on missing and murdered women for as long as necessary.

“When a population is suffering, it’s dehumanizing to the whole community,” Augustine said. “It impacts every single person in the community. It can’t be. It has to stop.”

The team’s focus on the issue comes at a time of increasing community awareness, and other organizations applaud its efforts.

“The YWCA Yakima is highly concerned about the number of murdered and missing women in Yakima County and glad to see people coming together to address the issue,” said Cheri Kilty, the YWCA’s executive director. “As a community we should find this unacceptable. The YWCA supports all efforts to find solutions to stop the killing of the women in our community.”

In its second year of focusing on a single topic, the community response team began as an idea when Augustine was working at Heritage University in Toppenish. She and Kim Bellamy-Thompson, chair of Heritage’s Department of Social Science, saw increasing tension between the public and the police and talked about ways to defuse that and open up communication.

“We can do this better, instead of trying to intervene when there’s an explosion,” Augustine said. “She and I convened some preliminary meetings. In conversation, that’s what came out.”

Originally called the community communication program, the initiative started in 2017 in partnership with Heritage with funding from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation. It was a natural fit for the Dispute Resolution Center, which provides services and training to help people peacefully resolve disputes, its website notes.

After creating the group, leaders asked what issue members wanted to focus on for a year. By that time, they had recruited people from throughout the Yakima Valley.

“I would say 16 people is what we originally recruited. That’s about what it is now. Not everyone makes every monthly meeting,” Augustine said.

Due to the sensitive nature of the issues they address, the meetings are not open to the public. “Because this is a space for people to have a conversation,” Augustine said. “People who don’t come from the same walks of life can come together and work together through difficult problems.”

The group’s initial focus was on immigration. Members of the community response team held a public forum in partnership with Radio KDNA in Granger on the Real ID Act, which established security standards for driver’s licenses and identity documents.

“That was a really huge event for us,” Augustine said. “Meanwhile, the community response team was working hard to inform community members that they should not avoid getting a license.”

Being part of the team isn’t always easy, said Augustine, who is of Pueblo heritage and lives in White Swan.

“How do we do this in the right way? That’s not defined,” she said. “These meetings can be tense because people are wrestling with this. You have to imagine a new solution. It’s a systemic change,” she said.

Invited to be part of the community response team by Bellamy-Thompson, Hill thinks it’s important to provide the voice of a survivor. But she also wanted to learn from others and work toward change.

“Tribal members are ready to address the rape culture on the reservation, even some of our elders,” Hill said.

Some are afraid of law enforcement and reporting crimes. They’re afraid of people in the community thinking of them as snitches. But providing timely information is the only way some of these cases are going to be solved, Hill said.

“People know things. They know what happened to somebody but they’re not speaking out about it,” she said. “If somebody knew where somebody was buried or assaulted, that could help solve cases.

“We’re are the point where we’re bringing awareness of sexual assault and the missing and murdered women, and we’re at a point where it’s time for action. That is holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.”

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.