In a photo taken during her name-giving ceremony, Sandra Lee Smiscon is beaming, wrapped in a turquoise shawl and a bright red embroidered head scarf. It is George Daniel Lee Jr.’s favorite picture of his mother.
Lee has just a few photos of her, given to him when he flew back home from England, where he was stationed, for her funeral in July 2003. Lee was 21 and had not seen his mother for a few years, not since he was a senior at White Swan High School and told her he would be joining the Air Force.
“She was pretty excited for me,” he said.
Lee tucked the photos away, still learning about the life and death of his mother, a Yakama Nation citizen killed in a random act of gun violence that has never been solved.
Early on the morning of July 12, 2003, Smiscon was hit by a shot in the abdomen while sleeping along Fourth Avenue under the Yesler Way overpass in Seattle. Her male companion, also asleep, was shot in the leg. A man in his 30s or 40s stood on top of the overpass at Fourth Avenue and fired at them, authorities said.
Police had received reports of multiple fireworks being set off in the area moments before the shots were fired, Seattle police spokesman Duane Fish said days after her death. They didn’t know why Smiscon was shot and were investigating whether she was the intended target.
Smiscon, 45, died that Saturday morning at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Her companion, who wasn’t identified, was treated and released.
In November, the nonprofit Urban Indian Health Institute, a research arm of the Seattle Indian Health Board, released a report identifying 506 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in 71 urban areas. Smiscon is among them.
The exact number of missing and murdered Native women on the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation is unknown. Even less certain is the number of tribal members who have gone missing or been murdered while off the reservation.
Born in Toppenish, Smiscon traveled between the Yakima Valley and Seattle for years. A petite woman with a big family, a broad smile and an adventurous nature, she relished her traditional upbringing, attending powwows and other special events when she came home. But she also struggled with the reality that her children were primarily being raised by others.
“My mom was really not a part of my life,” said Lee, who was raised by his father. “There’s some things I hear about her from my sister from time to time.”
Though Lee hardly knew her, Smiscon made him the man he is today in ways he is only beginning to understand. Years after her death, he realizes the struggles she faced and recognizes the demons she battled, because he has seen them himself.
Lee is four months sober. He’s in recovery, for which he is thankful.
“She never got that chance,” he said.
‘Now I understand’
Lee has two memories of his mother before his teenage years. He remembers her pulling him in a red wagon to a restaurant in Wapato, the city where his grandmother, Elaine Frank Smiscon, still lives. Sandra’s father, Walter, preceded her in death.
The other memory involves a day he was playing behind his grandmother’s house with his older sister.
“Mom was laughing,” Lee said. “I was really young, and it’s strange to me that I remember those events.”
He keeps those memories close, recalling the details as if he were a flexing a muscle. He doesn’t want to forget them.
“I try to remember those as often as I can because those were the two times I saw her when she was sober,” Lee said. “I saw her several times in my teens, but she was always intoxicated. ... Alcohol pushed us apart.”
His mother was born Feb. 23, 1958. One of 12 children, Sandra Smiscon worked at various nursing homes and was a crack pool player, which is how she met fellow pool enthusiast George Lee Sr., their son said. Smiscon enjoyed traditional culture, digging roots and picking berries, was active in the longhouse and supported her daughter in traditional dance, her obituary said.
Like his mother, Lee grew up going to the longhouse, in powwow circles. He spent days in the mountains, hunting and fishing, and held himself to rigorous personal standards. “At that point, how I knew my mom to be, I didn’t do drugs or alcohol,” he said.
As a high school sophomore, Lee decided to join the military like his father, who was drafted into the Army and served in Germany during the Vietnam War.
“In the powwow circle, when an eagle feather falls to the ground, the elders look at it as a fallen soldier,” he said. Only a combat warrior may pick it up, and only in a special ceremony involving other veterans.
“Once the veteran picks up the feather, he gives his story of combat,” Lee said. “To the people, what the eagle feather represents, that was the main thing that convinced me.”
A few months after graduating from White Swan High School in 2000, Lee joined the Air Force, serving from November 2000 to 2006. During that time, he spent two tours of duty in Iraq, from February to September 2005 and February to September 2006.
Lee enlisted in the Army in August 2007, with two tours of Afghanistan — for a year beginning in February 2009 and December 2011 to October 2012.
The last of the seven total tours he served was the hardest, Lee said, and he began drinking.
“I know what it’s like to be at the bottom of the barrel calling for help. I recognize those actions in my mom,” he said.
Called into an office one day, Lee learned that his mother had died.
“At that point, I couldn’t hear anything else he said,” Lee recalled. “I ended up calling the lady I was married to at the time; I wasn’t driving home. I cried really bad.”
He flew out from London the next day, arriving two days after his mother was buried at the Methodist cemetery in White Swan. Lee visited with his sisters, Leeta Gainey, then of New York and now living in Virginia, and Pricilla Jacobs of Kent. It was the first time they’d been together in years, he said.
“I didn’t grow up with them. They stayed with their dads or their dad’s families,” he said.
Over time, Lee processed emotions bound to emerge no matter the physical and emotional distance between him and his mom.
“The biggest thing is, we’re Native American. We live our lives with respect to Mother Earth,” he said. “Knowing that my mom knew all those ways — if you know all those ways and don’t practice those ways, you’re defeating the purpose. You lose focus.
“That was one of the biggest things I’ve seen in my mom. She didn’t want to practice. Going through my recovery, there were a lot of things I wish my mom took the time to do. She didn’t.”
Lee stopped drinking about four months ago and has weaned himself off his prescriptions.
“I’ve been going to the mountains. I’ve been going to the sweat lodge. I’ve been going to the longhouse. I smoke marijuana because it’s better than what the Army prescribes me,” he said.
“Recovery is hard. My mom didn’t get to make it.”
Knowing what he knows today, Lee would have made his mother come back to the Valley for treatment, he said. That is a challenge family and friends of missing people may face — adults can separate themselves from others.
Still, Lee wishes someone would have tried harder to help his mother.
“The rest of us, they knew where she was. All my family knew she was going over to Seattle. ... She was dead set on Seattle.
“Now I understand. She was left high and dry by all of us,” he said.
‘Two stories, no answers’
Smiscon returned to the Valley for a powwow shortly before her death. It was the last time family and friends saw her.
While police have said his mother was hit by random gunfire and wasn’t targeted, Lee has also heard that she owed someone $300.
A friend he deployed with, a Seattle resident, told Lee his father was the police chief. Lee asked for his help looking up some records concerning Smiscon’s murder.
“He said some white lady hired a hit man to kill your mother,” Lee recalled his friend telling him. “Two stories, no answers.”
Shortly before noon on Oct. 18, 2011, people began gathering near a memorial outside the Seattle Justice Center. They were there for a dedication of 13 Leaves of Remembrance by the Homeless Remembrance Project, a group that honors homeless people who have died in King County.
“Every Person Matters,” the Leaves of Remembrance website notes. It lists information about every person remembered with a memorial and seeks comments from those who knew them. Among the comments about Smiscon one woman wrote, “She had the most beautiful smile.”
Gainey, her oldest daughter, remembers that smile well. She works as a certified nursing assistant, like her mother.
“She always had the biggest smile on her face,” said Gainey, 39. “That really big, cheesy smile.”
She lived with her mother as a baby, and then from age 5 to 11, Gainey said. That’s when her father, who lived in the eastern United States, came and got her.
Smiscon encouraged Gainey and Jacobs in Native dancing, Gainey in traditional and Jacobs in jingle dress. And she wanted them to finish what they started, Gainey said, remembering a time when she was making a dress at the longhouse and wanted to take a break to go play with others. Smiscon insisted that she complete it before taking a break.
Their mother encouraged stability, discipline and independence while discouraging them from taking the path she took, Gainey said.
“I remember some times she’d say, ‘I’m going to go into the clinic to get some help. I know it’s not good for my body.’ When things kind of got to her, she’d start the drinking again.”
As a mother, Gainey understands that losing custody of one’s children — as Smiscon did — hurts unbearably. “If I lost custody of my children, I’d lose it,” she said. “I would do something to numb the pain.”
Despite her demons and her weaknesses, Gainey said, Smiscon was a caring person who wanted the best for her children.
“She made sure that we knew better — don’t repeat the mistakes I made,” she said.
‘A great thing’
As Lee continues to learn more about the woman who was his mother, he adds to his own life story. Several years ago, Lee found out that Smiscon had another son.
His half-brother would probably be around 45 years old, Lee said.
“I have no idea who he is. I have no idea where he is. I don’t even know if he’s still alive,” he said.
Becoming a father has helped keep his mother alive in his heart. And remarkable occurrences — fate, some would say — bring her back in unexpected ways.
Lee’s oldest daughter, Lilyana Elaine Lee, was born in North Carolina on Aug. 25, 2015. All three nurses assisting with her birth were named Sandra.
“To me, that was a great thing,” Lee said softly.
He also has a 1-year-old daughter, Layla Elizabeth Lee, and a 12-year-old son, Kamiakin Avien Lee, along with two adopted sons, Devante Erik Lee, 17; and Damion Daniel Lee, 15. His daughters and adopted sons are in Vermont and his other son lives a few hours away.
Recently, Lee was honored in the same traditional ceremony his mother participated in years ago. He had already received a family name, but on New Year’s Day, his father gave him a second name — one for a warrior.
It took place at the Toppenish Longhouse on Robbins Road. Lee thinks his mother, who received the name “Na wy it,” was a young woman, late teens or early 20s, and the naming ceremony was held at the Wapato Longhouse. He’s asking others, trying to learn more about the woman in her finest regalia, holding gifts for her guests, her long braids wrapped in fur.
Having received an honorable discharge for medical reasons in November, Lee is back living in White Swan and thinking of his future.
“I’m retired,” he quips amid relentlessly polite remarks punctuated with “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir.” Still a military man at heart, he’s fit and stands tall, with impeccable posture, his hair cut high and tight.
He’s leaving in a couple of weeks to visit his children in Vermont, then will head to north Georgia to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail with a fellow soldier. He hopes to finish in August.
“I’ve always wanted to do things like this, the Appalachian Trail, the Mojave Desert, the Teton (Crest) Trail, Denali,” said Lee, who was stationed in Alaska for six years.
Beyond that, he plans to finish his criminal justice degree and, using his military and police experience, “see if I can help out here,” he said.
Lee wants to figure out where best to advocate for women like his mother. He plans to attend Monday’s meeting in Toppenish on missing Native women and will wear red, the color that honors missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. He speaks to students about his struggles with addiction. He serves on a truancy board.
“(I) try to set the best example I can as if my kids were watching every single step,” Lee said. “Sober up. Fix myself. Be there for my family. Break a pattern.
“Eventually, she would have.”