Carolyn DeFord stood to speak as others in the room, elected officials and community advocates and indigenous people like herself, looked up and listened.
“It’s been 20 years and it’s still hard to talk about,” she said of the disappearance of her mother, Leona LeClair Kinsey, in October 1999.
Late that month her mother, a member of the Puyallup Tribe living in La Grande, Ore., told a friend she was headed to the grocery store and then her friend’s house. The friend called DeFord the next morning, saying her mother never arrived. DeFord left several urgent messages on her mother’s answering machine and filed a missing person report with La Grande police when she didn’t hear back.
Police located Kinsey’s SUV in a nearby Albertsons parking lot. DeFord, then living hours away, drove to her mother’s home several days later, when she could get time off work.
“I walked in my mom’s house and there was still coffee in the coffee pot. Her purse was on the floor next to her bed. Her cigarettes were on the table. Her pager, her coat and shoes were in the living room,” DeFord said. “My mom never went anywhere without her purse. She couldn’t see without her glasses. She was never gone for very long without the dog.
“I don’t even know that she made it to the store. All that stuff was left behind.”
It is a heartbreaking story DeFord has told countless times since her 45-year-old mother went missing. DeFord, a member of the Puyallup Tribe who lives in Yelm, spoke in Yakima on May 30 at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who had asked her and about two dozen others to a private roundtable discussion at the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“It’s taken a long time for us to heal without answers,” DeFord said in her soft, almost girlish voice as other Native women in the room remembered their own murdered and missing loved ones — a sister missing since October 1987 and another sister raped and beaten to death in April 1994, a woman found in a burning car in 1985.
DeFord is a senior administrative assistant at the tribe’s Community Domestic Violence Advocacy Program, and also works tirelessly to keep her mother’s story in the public eye. Someone knows what happened to Kinsey and where she is. There is a $10,000 reward for information — $2,500 from Oregon Crime Stoppers and $7,500 from the Puyallup Tribal Council.
“There’s no resolution to this ambiguous loss,” she said.
It was important for DeFord to make the trip to Yakima that day to tell her mother’s story and her own experience as a daughter still seeking answers. At the same time, she showed her support for the others who are struggling with their own loss. DeFord also traveled to the Yakima Valley for the Oct. 29 meeting on missing and murdered indigenous women at the Yakima Convention Center, during which she read a statement for Trudi Lee Clark, whose sister, Janice Hannigan, has been missing since late December 1971.
More recently, DeFord was in Toppenish for the July 14 vigil held by Cissy Strong Reyes and her brother Christopher Strong for their sister Rosenda Sophia Strong, whose remains were found July 4 and identified a week later. Her death is being investigated as a homicide. She went missing nearly a year ago, on Oct. 2.
“I know how it feels to be alone in the journey and feel like it doesn’t matter, that when it does matter, it’s only for the time that it’s in the spotlight. For the rest of the world, life goes on and you’re still in that moment and it hurts. It hurts when your loved one who your life has revolved around” is gone, DeFord said.
“I know how they feel. I don’t want anybody who’s going through that to feel alone.”
On Saturday, DeFord and others will gather at 3 p.m. at Max Square in La Grande in remembrance of the 20th anniversary of her mother’s disappearance. DeFord organized the public event to remember all relatives who are missing and honor those who were taken too soon.
Cissy Strong and Strong’s cousin, Roxanne White, plan to attend. Strong and White also advocate for missing and murdered indigenous people and travel to show their support. Missing and murdered indigenous people are more then numbers, statistics and news, White stressed. They are family and community.
“This weekend’s event is about Leona Kinsey, but what many do not recognize is the families that are left without resources and support to navigate through the most difficult time in one’s life,” said White, who has helped organize several events along with helping families.
“None of us do this work exactly the same, but it is definitely been a blessing to have the collaboration and friendship that I have experience with Carolyn DeFord,” she said. “Our hopes prayers are that someone in La Grande, Oregon will remember something that will bring forth new information to helping a daughter find her mama.”
Kinsey is among an unknown number of Native women in the United States who have gone missing, been murdered and have suffered sexual and physical violence at disproportionate rates for centuries. It’s an international issue, with authorities in Canada issuing a more-than-1,200-page report, “Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” in early June.
Several states have enacted legislation to determine how many Native women are missing and identify barriers to better tracking that number, improving investigations, communication and more. The 36-page Washington State Patrol Missing & Murdered Native American Women Report, released on May 31, came as a result of 2018 legislation sponsored by state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale.
The report says of the people missing in Washington state in May, 56 were Native women. Yakima County had 20 Native women who were missing that month according to the National Crime Information Center statistics, the highest county total by far. But it’s unknown exactly how many Native women and girls have gone missing, have been murdered and have died mysteriously on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation.
Mosbrucker supported another bill this year to more immediately address the crisis and DeFord attended the bill signing. She testified on behalf of Oregon House Bill 2625, which directs state police departments to study how to improve and increase criminal justice resources relating to missing and murdered Native American women. Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law last spring.
And she cheered the recent Seattle City Council resolution this week that encourages better data collection, tracking and investigations of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and hopes for such a resolution in Tacoma.
DeFord has seen attitudes change in the time since she last saw her mother, who worked as a landscaper, a janitor and a hotel housekeeper and enjoyed gardening and spending time with her family and friends when she could.
“There was no initial investigation conducted beyond, ‘Call me if you hear anything,’” DeFord said May 30 of her early interactions with police. And for several years after she disappeared, Kinsey was classified as white. “Communication got dropped,” she added.
La Grande police continue to receive tips and investigate them. Authorities have searched a pond and an area where they were told she might be, DeFord said. She asks anyone with any pertinent information to call police.
In 2017, DeFord created the Missing and Murdered Native Americans Facebook page, among her efforts on social media to give direction to families seeking answers and support them through their healing journey. “There’s no timeframe for that,” she said.
She has made friends through that group and beyond in her MMIW journey, DeFord said.
“It’s kind of created a bond ... it’s like a family in a way,” she added.