Kamarin Gleason was just 2 months old when she attended her first Pendleton Round-Up, the huge rodeo that draws thousands to northeastern Oregon. She’s gone every year since, always proud to represent the Yakama Nation.
The 18-year-old was there for several days in mid-September with family and friends, competing in the American Indian Beauty Contest, dancing and riding her paint horse. This year, Gleason added a powerful statement to her intricate regalia by wearing a red handprint on her face and painting “MMIW” in red letters on her horse in pageant events on Sept. 13.
MMIW stands for missing and murdered indigenous women, and the color red has been adopted by advocates raising awareness for the issue. The handprint represents indigenous people who have been silenced by the violence that has disproportionately impacted Native communities for centuries.
“Everyone’s eyes are on me when I’m in my regalia,” Gleason said. That offers a unique opportunity to advocate for missing women and hopefully spur more interest and knowledge of the issue.
“It’s just small things like that that make people want to look more into it,” added Gleason, the daughter of Annie Rae Benson and Robert Gleason Jr. She lives in Brownstown and graduated from Wapato High School with plans to attend Heritage University in the spring.
Gleason was joined in the pageant by her friend Halo Tomma, who competed for the first time. The Round-Up features several theme days; the day highlighting missing and murdered indigenous women was Sept. 13, the same day of beauty contest competition. They wore red that day in the parade and other judging.
“The judges ask about your regalia,” Gleason noted. She wore a buckskin dress handed down from her grandmother, Kalea Benson. Her grandmother created her regalia.
An estimated 50,000 people come to Pendleton for the Round-Up, which is Wednesday through Saturday in the second full week of September. It includes a grand tribal village of more than 300 tepees hosted by the nearby Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which brings Native participants from throughout the Pacific Northwest to compete and perform, catch up with others and sell their crafts and artwork.
“A lot of people walk through our encampment,” Gleason said, offering more chances to educate the public.
Gleason made the same statement during the Ellensburg Rodeo on Labor Day weekend. Gleason’s mother and many of her extended Benson family are longtime participants in the Pendleton Round-Up and the Ellensburg Rodeo, where Native riders head down Craig’s Hill in their regalia before every rodeo competition.
Gleason, whose family is known for their horsemanship, is among a growing number of Native women and men from or with ties to the Yakama Nation who are using their chosen sport or personal passion to advocate for missing and murdered indigenous women.
Others stand tall
On Oct. 6, Yakama runner Robin Derouin of White Swan wore a red handprint on her face during the 5K Wonder Woman Run in Redmond. Derouin, who is 38 and began running this year, had been thinking a lot about missing and murdered women and girls and wanted to bring attention to the issue.
The race was huge, with approximately 2,300 runners. With its size and its name, it was a good chance to educate others.
“That morning when we were getting ready, it was right after I did the handprint ... I came out of the bathroom with a red handprint and a girl I was running with said, ‘You have your tribal paint on.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not my tribal paint,’ and explained to her the meaning” behind it, Derouin said.
Derouin said she was nervous while waiting for the race to begin because people were looking at her. One woman did say, “Oh look, there’s a red handprint.’ I don’t know if she knew what it meant, but somebody in the crowd would have,” she added.
Another woman came up to her and said, “I see you,” Derouin responded with the same words. “She said, ‘No, I see you. I see you and I think that’s great,’” Derouin said, meaning she wasn’t missing. “That just gave me chills,” she added.
The same weekend of Derouin’s race, members of the Yakama Nation Tribal School football team dedicated their Oct. 5 homecoming game — which they won — to missing and murdered indigenous women. They asked fans to wear red for the game, and some brought signs with “MMIW” and “Never Forgotten.”
Yakama Nation Behavioral Health donated red shirts for distribution at the game and Cissy Strong Reyes spoke at halftime. Her sister, Rosenda Sophia Strong, went missing on Oct. 2, 2018, and her remains were found July 4 near Toppenish.
The death of the 31-year-old mother of four is considered a homicide. No arrests have been made.
Strong is among an unknown number of Native women and girls who have gone missing, been murdered or died mysteriously on and beyond the boundaries of the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation.
“I know a lot of families, people I’ve grown up with, their moms have gone missing,” Gleason said.
Growing up on the Yakama Reservation, Gleason has long known about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. She is a member of the Yakama Nation’s Iksiks Washanal’a (“The Little Swans”) dance group, a collective of girls brought together by the culture of their tribe through oral interpretations of dance.
“I knew about it, but didn’t take it more seriously,” Gleason said of the issue. “We did the red dresses for the Swans a couple years ago, but I didn’t know how bad it was.”
The Little Swans participated in the Women’s March on Yakima in January. Later that spring, Gleason and Tomma went with Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot to testify on behalf of legislation in Oregon that requires the Oregon State Police to study how to increase criminal justice and investigative resources toward past and future cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. It was signed into law.
Gleason, who also advocates for suicide awareness, traditional ways and Ichiskiin, the language spoken by the Yakama people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, feels strongly about taking a public stand for missing and murdered indigenous women and is glad others do too.
“It’s really cool to see people my age doing it,” she said.