TOPPENISH — As more than 200 people walked Sunday to raise awareness of missing and murdered indigenous women, many carried red posterboard silhouettes of a Native woman, similar in shape but with different words — mother, sister, grandmother, baby sitter.
Others had messages, like that carried by Charlene Tillequots, a member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Committee.
“Stop the silence,” it said.
The second annual REDgalia Awareness Walk began at 1 p.m. at the Old Timers Plaza with opening prayer by fellow committee member Lottie Sam. They and the two other members of the committee, Athena Sanchey-Yallup and Esther Moses-Hyipeer, also led the walk to the Yakama Nation Tribal School, just over a mile away at 601 Linden St., after speakers addressed the crowd gathered at the downtown plaza.
“It’s truly an honor to represent the Yakama Nation on this issue,” Sanchey-Yallup said.
The REDgalia campaign event, held by staff of the Yakama Nation Behavioral Health Victim Resource Program, was among others throughout the country Sunday, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. The epidemic of violence has plagued tribes throughout the country and beyond for decades.
“As we stand here together today, thousands of other people across this land are standing together for awareness and justice,” said Emily Washines, a Yakama Nation historian and scholar and activist for missing and murdered indigenous women.
“We have had a problem with safety of our women for 164 years. The missing and murdered women crisis cannot be fixed in the system we have. There has to be a new system across the local, tribal, state and federal level.”
No one knows exactly how many Native girls and women have gone missing on or around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation. Many cases of missing people or mysterious deaths of women and men remain unsolved. During a two-year FBI investigation spurred by rumors of a serial killer, investigators found as many as 32 cases dating to 1980.
More than a century before that, in the fall of 1855, a Yakama woman and her children were raped and murdered by miners, which set into motion events that led to the Yakama War of 1855-58.
“We come together today to honor those women today,” Washines said. “We also recognize that this is a continuation of violence toward Native women. ... This is not a story you will find in many history books about the start of the Yakama War. ... They erase our women and girls.”
Washines hopes to establish a community board with the missing and murdered Yakama women, she said, because there’s no space for them now. “These family members must go around posting the flyers of their loved ones. They should not have to do that alone. They should not go back a week later and see that flyer gone.
“We should not allow any more erasure of our Native women. Not in the history books. Not in newspapers. Not in comments where they victim blame and say that we must dress or act a certain way to be protected.”
Before they began their walk, organizers honored Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot of White Swan, a longtime Yakama Nation educator and activist for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. In March, Whitefoot was one of three people recognized at the 10th annual Adeline Garcia Community Service Awards luncheon held by the Seattle Indian Health Board. The event highlighted leaders in the region for their contributions toward Native issues.
“We would like to thank her for all she has contributed to our community,” said Jordan Meninick, child youth advocate for the Victim Resource Program.
Josey Tenorio Tewa and Roxanne White, activists for missing and murdered indigenous women, also spoke. Tewa leads missing and murdered indigenous women prayer runs and organized a Hopi/Yakama prayer run that took place in the Lower Valley on Saturday. White was also involved in events throughout the weekend.
“If you have a missing relative or you’ve had a missing relative or you’ve had a murdered relative and you’ve lost them to violence, could you please hold your hand up,” White said Sunday. Hands went up all around.
“That’s why we’re here. You don’t even have to come up here and speak for me to know that almost every single one of us carry those stories. some of us carry them four and five times over in our families,” White said. “We carry the stories going back five, 10 generations of violence against indigenous Native people. We know what everyone else is acting like is a new thing.”
Among those missing from the Yakama Reservation is Rosenda Sophia Strong. She was last seen in Wapato on Oct. 2, when she left with an acquaintance to visit Legends Casino in Toppenish.
Her sister, Cissy Strong Reyes, brother Christopher Strong and other relatives, along with White, held an event for her 32nd birthday on April 16.
“They go to bed thinking about this and they wake up thinking about this. And they’re not alone,” White said of Strong’s family. “There’s so many families out here. ... These families feel alone and we could do better as a community on reaching out to them, and taking care of each other.”
During the walk, participants chanted Rosenda’s name and demanded justice for her and others.
“Bring all our sisters home,” they chanted. “Bring our brothers home.”