ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Inside a normally busy hall at Central Washington University, a few dozen people stood in silence Tuesday, stopping for a moment to remember the countless Native women and girls who are missing or murdered in an epidemic of violence that has endured for decades in the United States and beyond.
Those attending the memorial service at the Museum of Culture & Environment could not have known how many Native women and girls have gone missing and have been murdered because there are no government databases. No one has tracked the exact number of the mothers and daughters, grandmothers and sisters and aunties and cousins who have disappeared from the Yakama Nation, other reservations and the cities between them.
But that is changing. And for all those touched by the violence — individuals and families and entire communities — it’s about time.
“We are at a pivot point in our history regarding the safety of our Native women,” said Emily Washines, a scholar of the Yakama Nation and one of four speakers during morning lectures in the Student Union and Recreation Center on the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women.
Paul Knepper, professor and chairman of Central’s Department of Law and Justice, led the two-hour discussion. The subject is especially important for Central Washington, its lands home to a Native population that has lived here since time immemorial.
“It’s particularly important for our region. We share geography with the Yakama Nation,” Knepper said of the morning gathering, which drew more than 300 people. “I also want to thank the families here.”
As a Yakama Nation scholar with a deep interest in the Yakama War of 1855-58, Washines researches and speaks on the historical aspects of missing and murdered Native women on the Yakama reservation.
“In 1855 there was a woman, her daughter and baby in a cradleboard. They were out on the land, likely digging roots,” she said. “Miners on their way up north, to gold mine in Colville ... raped and killed them.”
That may seem like a long time ago, Washines noted, but for some elders, their grandparents could have lived in that time period. Only one book, “Kamiakin Country” by Jo N. Miles, acknowledges that violence against Yakama women and children set in motion events that started the war, Washines said. Almost everyone else outside the tribe — including the state government — has been silent on the issue of the war’s real cause, that men were defending their families.
“Can you imagine if your grandmother was raped and murdered and for 164 years you only heard silence from the outside community?” she asked the crowd.
Washines and the other three speakers provided different ways of understanding the issue. Lottie A. Sam is a member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council and its Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Committee. Yakima County Sheriff Robert Udell, who has been with the agency for 29 years, has long been aware of cases involving missing and murdered Native women and girls in the Yakima Valley.
State Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, spoke by video conference because the Legislature is in session. She sponsored legislation that requires the Washington State Patrol to study the issue of missing Native women in the state and provide recommendations.
In recalling her journey to sponsoring that legislation, she mentioned that many people told her it is a sovereign issue. Some told her it’s an issue for Congress and that’s true, Mosbrucker said.
But “Congress wasn’t taking care of it. The FBI wasn’t taking care of it,” she added.
Mosbrucker is sponsoring a new bill this year that speeds up some goals of the legislation she sponsored last year, “some action items to make sure we’re not losing the momentum,” she said.
A big issue is protocol on taking missing persons reports. Sam noted that relatives of missing women — and men — have faced frustration when trying to make those reports to law enforcement.
“Some of the families were disappointed in trying to file reports,” Sam said, adding that many think there’s a waiting period to report a missing person. “They can file a report immediately if something is out of the norm.”
Recently, Sam and others worked with Yakama Nation Police Department investigators and its commissioner, James Shike, on establishing report language. There is now a new form that they will use when families report a missing loved one.
Udell has worked closely with Yakama Nation police and has a good working relationship with them, he stressed.
“Our relationship with the tribe right now is excellent. And we’re going to use that relationship to find missing people,” Udell said. “In our county we have dozens of missing people and at least 40 unsolved homicide cases.”
Udell is creating a cold case task force, something the tribe did a few years ago, he noted.
“It’s going to be a big deal and it’s going to be a lot of work,” he said. “I have high hopes that we’re going to bring closure. We’ll do everything we can to find people who are missing.”
Several who attended the memorial service expressed appreciation for the attention on the issue.
Bessie Wilson, director of the Yakama Nation Iniitnu’t Cold Weather Shelter, performs and sing with a group called Iksiks Washanal’a, “The Little Swans.”
“A few years back we began wearing red” to honor the Native women and girls who went missing and were murdered in Canada, “and there was so much negative backlash,” she said. People didn’t want them bringing it up or highlighting it, she said.
“To have an event like this, to have a large meeting in our Legends Casino events center (on Jan. 14), this is giant progress,” Wilson said.
In looking back just 10 years, change is obvious in how the issue of missing and murdered Native women and girls is being addressed, some said. Those who love and miss them are demanding justice, and others are listening.
“We will stop crying. We will speak loud on behalf of our sisters — our big sisters and our little sisters,” Sam said.
“We all matter.”