TOPPENISH — In making a class presentation on missing and murdered indigenous women on the Yakama reservation, Christen Hoptowit Rivera and two fellow Heritage University students wanted to raise awareness of the issue.
The project required in their University 101 course involved a lot of research by Rivera and group members Lucia Villegas and Steven Escalera. As part of her research, Rivera interviewed Patsy Whitefoot, whose sister has been missing since October 1987.
Rivera also learned that her great-aunt on her mother’s side, JoAnne Betty Wyman John, went missing in August 1988. John’s skull and bone fragments were found Feb. 2, 1991, near Mill Creek southwest of White Swan. Coroner’s records list her cause of death as homicidal violence. She was 44.
“I never knew that my Grandma Charlotte had a sister that went missing. No one ever talked about it,” Rivera said. “I never knew anything about it until I did this, not till about a month ago.”
Rivera is also a cousin of Felina Metsker, 33, who was reported missing April 1, 2016. Her remains were found the next month. Four people were convicted in Metsker’s death and three have been sentenced.
Students in instructor Gloria Jones-Dance’s course identified a local social problem as part of their group change projects. In the process, they learned more about the community, took action and considered possible solutions. They gave their presentations Thursday, with the other groups highlighting pesticides and their impact, racism and immigration, and gender and sexuality.
Heritage has hosted several events in honor of missing and murdered indigenous people. Members of the Student Government Association hosted “Red Days” on Sept. 27 and Oct. 25. A third was held on Nov. 22 combined with another event as part of Spirituality Week at Heritage.
As Escalera noted in the presentation, red means different things for different tribes. For some, red is power. Others wear red so their ancestors can find them, he said. Escalera, Rivera and Villegas wore REDgalia T-shirts from the Victim Resource Program of Yakama Nation Behavioral Health. Advocates distribute red shirts and encourage others to wear them, or another item of red clothing, every Thursday to raise awareness.
“It’s not just women who go missing. Men and boys go missing, too,” Escalera said. “It affects a lot of families throughout the generations.”
Early in the week, the three attended a community vigil organized by Cissy Strong Reyes. The Dec. 1 gathering at the Toppenish Community Center honored her sister, Rosenda Strong, who went missing in early October 2018 and was found murdered on July 4. They showed a video interview with Reyes and shared a flyer with contact information for law enforcement agencies investigating her sister’s death.
Several other relatives and friends of missing and murdered indigenous people spoke at the vigil. Rivera, Villegas and Escalera met Reyes and Roxanne White, an advocate for missing and murdered indigenous people. They got flyers with information about Rachel Norris, who was last seen Nov. 14 after her Wapato apartment building burned.
The three talked about the vigil in their presentation and distributed pamphlets that Villegas made. They’re hoping the Student Government Association will allow them to hang flyers with information about missing people, and they want to encourage other students and staff to wear red the first Friday of every month.
Jones-Dance was pleased with their work. “I think they did amazing,” she said.