On a traffic pole at a busy intersection in Toppenish, weatherworn paper flyers feature photos and information about Indigenous people who are missing. One is Leona Sharon Kinsey, who was last seen in La Grande, Ore., on Oct. 25, 1999.

Her daughter, Carolyn DeFord, still has a copy of the first missing person flyer she made after her mom disappeared. She went to police, who said that as an adult, Kinsey had a right to privacy. DeFord thought police would make and distribute missing person flyers. They didn’t, so she did it herself. She included a photo of her mom holding DeFord’s son, Kinsey, soon after he was born.

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Missing person posters of Teemiska K. Gordon, top, and Leona Kinsey, bottom, are seen on a utility pole Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, during a missing and murdered Indigenous women and people vigil on West First Avenue in Toppenish, Wash.

“We didn’t know what to do. We had no idea what needed to be on it,” said DeFord, a Puyallup tribal citizen, like her mother. “I only knew one person with a computer.”

They couldn’t imagine that more than 21 years later, Kinsey would still be missing, DeFord said on the Facebook page she created for her mom, Finding Leona Kinsey.

These days, missing person flyers and posters with information about unsolved murders circulate widely on social media. They’re created by relatives and advocates and organizations, and many have detailed descriptions of the missing person. Some law enforcement agencies are creating posters and sharing them.

Awareness of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people has increased in the past several years as families and advocates have shared those flyers, videos, and intensely personal posts on social media and the internet. Coverage by traditional media has grown. Demands for answers and justice ring out more than ever before.

“Over the last 30 years, 20 years, couple years we have seen more movement toward addressing racial inequalities in this country and we have seen more ability to push the stories, the real stories, into the public knowledge,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle.

This has been an issue for hundreds of years. Some advocates have been fighting for their relatives for decades, Echo-Hawk noted, including Patsy Whitefoot of White Swan, whose sister, Daisy Mae Heath, was reported missing Oct. 29, 1987. She was last seen late that summer.

“We follow in the footsteps of people like Patsy Whitefoot. This is not new,” Echo-Hawk said.

The institute, which is the research arm of the Seattle Indian Health Board, has led efforts throughout the country to improve data collection for missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially in urban centers. About 70% of Native people don’t live on reservations, Echo-Hawk said.

In November 2018, the institute issued a report identifying 506 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in 71 urban cities, saying that was likely an undercount due to poor data collection in numerous municipalities. More recently, it helped guide Wyoming’s first statewide report on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Better data and more information-sharing are considered crucial in addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“There have been a lot of stumbles and falls along the way,” DeFord said, mentioning a June 2019 report by the Washington State Patrol that has been criticized by the Urban Indian Health Institute and activists as “severely lacking.”

“But we’re getting there. I don’t want to say we’re happy with those crumbs because we’re not and I’m skeptical about our federal response. I’m optimistic but skeptical,” she added. “It has hopefully put funding that will be used effectively in the hands of organizations that are providing services, supporting families and healing.”

More legislation

Dozens of women and men have gone missing, have been found murdered and have died mysteriously on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation, which is in Yakima County and northern Klickitat County. Many cases are unsolved. The crisis impacts reservations throughout the country, in Canada and communities on the American border with Mexico, and Indigenous populations around the world.

In Washington state, there were 99 active Native American missing person reports as of Wednesday, according to an email from Washington State Patrol tribal liaison Patti Gosch.

Thirty of those cases are in Yakima County — the biggest total of any county. Only King County is close, with 19. Of the Yakima County cases, 27 are with Yakama Nation police; one with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, one with the Yakima Police Department and one with the Toppenish Police Department.

Gosch and Dawn Pullin, a Spokane Tribe of Indians citizen, were hired as a result of 2019 legislation crafted by state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale. It followed 2018 legislation she sponsored to determine how to increase resources for reporting and identifying missing Native women.

Officials on local, state and national levels have sponsored legislation created to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people, who suffer violence at disproportionate levels. A federal task force, also known as Operation Lady Justice, is in its second year of work, created by President Donald Trump and continuing under President Joe Biden.

Task force members held more than 15 meetings with tribes, individuals and organizations, including one on the Yakama reservation.

Among the federal efforts, coordinators were budgeted for 11 states. David J. Rogers, a Nez Perce citizen and former police chief for the Nez Perce Tribal Police in Lapwai, Idaho, was hired as the missing and murder Indigenous people coordinator for Washington, federal prosecutors announced in November.

In October, Trump signed Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act into law. Savanna’s Act is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Spirit Lake Nation citizen who was murdered in 2017. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside was one of the House sponsors of Savanna’s Act.

Savanna’s Act will, among other things, improve data collection and information sharing, standardize law enforcement protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and give tribal government more resources.

The Not Invisible Act requires the Department of Interior to designate someone in the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate grants, programs and prevention efforts related to murdered and missing Indigenous women, as well as human trafficking of Native Americans.

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Abigail Echo-Hawk, Chief Research Officer for the Seattle Indian Board

Newhouse “listened to Native women in his district regarding this issue,” said Emily Washines, a Yakama historian and advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people and their families. A fund at the Yakima Valley Community Foundation supports her advocacy work.

“I continue to have hope that different people would want to help address this and fix this because I continue to see the results of people speaking up like Newhouse, like Mosbrucker,” she said. “We all should be caring about this.”

Seeing Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act signed into law after years of advocacy “was great,” Echo-Hawk said. But she wants to see more commitment at the federal level allocating funds to tribal communities and families.

“We have to build off of them. They are only the beginning,” Echo-Hawk said. “We need policy makers to understand, this system of inequity isn’t going to change without continuous effort and resource allocation.”

Data issuesThe U.S. Attorney’s office in Oregon issued its first report on missing and murdered Indigenous people in February, which included names and photos of 11 missing people with Oregon ties. Kinsey is among them, with a note that she was initially misclassified as white. Misclassification is among the biggest challenges concerning data about missing and murdered Indigenous people.

{div class=”subscriber-only”}The 2019 Washington State Patrol report didn’t list names. It’s frustrating for people like Washines, who want to empower communities to help families find their relatives and solve cold murder cases and mysterious deaths.{/div}

Some of those efforts are shared on a Facebook page, WE FEAR NOT — Yakama, which empowers people in reestablishing a strong community presence to rid the Yakama home lands of evils that disrupt their way of life, according to a description.

“When they’re Native, why does it go into this secret realm? I want that list,” Washines said. “I still don’t understand why that information is withheld. It seems like something that can be addressed ... different people having access to that information to help share and find them. It bothers me that their names are withheld.”

“The people that are missing, I want them to know we’re looking for them. I want their families to know that we’re looking for them.”

The oldest missing person case of the state’s 99 active cases of missing Native adults and juveniles is that of Janice Marie Hannigan, a Yakama teen who disappeared nearly 50 years ago.

Gosch said the Washington State Patrol will start publishing all of the names in its blog, https://wspinsideout.wordpress.com, in the near future. WSP also is improving its website to include a monthly list of missing Native American people.

“We can only publish photos of missing persons when we have a signed photo release form,” she said. “Once we have such a release, we can add those photos.”

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FILE—Roxanne White, left, and Cissy Reyes Strong record a live video via social media Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, during a missing and murdered Indigenous women and people vigil at Pioneer Park in Toppenish, Wash.

More help needed for familiesOn Feb. 17, dozens of people gathered at West First Avenue and South Elm Street in Toppenish to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous people in the region. They walked to nearby Pioneer Park, some speaking about their relatives before a memorial luminary release at dark.

“I want to give all the families a moment to say something. We want to hear from the families. This is why we’re here,” organizer Roxanne White said as she stood near Cissy Strong Reyes, her cousin. Reyes’ sister, Rosenda Sophia Strong, disappeared after a trip to Legends Casino with an acquaintance Oct. 2, 2018.

Strong’s remains were found July 4, 2019, and her death has been classified as a homicide. As the FBI investigation continues, Reyes and their brother, Christopher Strong, await the day they can bring her home for burial next to their mother on the Umatilla Reservation in Central Oregon.

Despite improved response by some law enforcement in the last few years, families still do most of the work in searching for their missing loved ones and seeking justice. They’re frustrated and angry. Advocates want to see more help for families and more help from police. It is crucial to provide support for relatives fighting for justice for their murdered loved one or searching for someone who is missing — and those who go missing.

“We need to look at what they were going through — what challenges, what was going on in their lives prior to their disappearance, at the time of their disappearance. What did they need?” DeFord said. “There are victims of domestic violence that don’t see a police response; protection orders aren’t honored. (Domestic violence) is one of major causes of homicide for Native women.

“Where is the system failing folks before they go missing?”

Though she’s seen better efforts to address the crisis in the seven years since she founded Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, Deborah Maytubee Shipman of Portland, Ore., said the past few months been the worst emotionally since she started it. The nonprofit advocates for families, coordinates searches and supports relatives, among other work.

She and her staff and volunteers have been working with the family of 8-year-old Mildred Old Crow, whose body was found on the Crow Reservation in Montana last month. She was last seen in March 2019. They also searched at length for Tina Spino, a Warm Springs, Ore., woman whose remains were found in January in a remote location on the Warm Springs Reservation. Spino was reported missing in early August.

“We were looking for her here in town because the lady that she was last seen with said she was going to Portland with some guy,” Denton said. “So we looked in Portland and went to all the (homeless) camps and at this one camp, they’re always saying ‘Yeah, that’s Tina; she stays right over there, she’s just not here right now. She always comes home at night.’ So people kept going down there.

“When they found Tina in Warm Springs and we’d been looking here that whole time, I’d never felt so guilty or horrible about the job I did. We should have been looking in both places,” Denton added. “I’m just never going to forget that. I just felt horrible that she’d been laying out there that whole time. I know we couldn’t have saved her life, but she didn’t have to lay out there that long.”

Removing barriers to service is an important goal. DeFord is seeing more collaboration among organizations that could help Spino and others. Continuing that work and improving communication is important ongoing work for the future.

“A lot more social service organizations are seeing the intersection in the work they do and trying to educate themselves on what missing and murdered is, what the issue is, why are people going missing and what we can do,” DeFord said.

This story is part of the Protecting and Promoting Local Journalism Initiative, a project supported by the Yakima Valley Community Foundation with financial, training and technological assistance from Microsoft Corp. In Yakima County, the initiative is a collaboration between the Yakima Herald-Republic, El Sol de Yakima and Radio KDNA, whose journalists maintain independent editorial control of the project.

To make a charitable contribution to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation’s Community Journalism Fund, visit the foundation’s website and select the “Give Today” button. On the sidebar, click on “Find Opportunities.” Enter “journalism” in the word search and the fund will pop up. Donors can also send checks and stocks directly to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation.