TOPPENISH — As cars passed through one of the city’s busiest intersections Wednesday, people stood holding posters showing the faces and names of Indigenous women and men who have gone missing or have been murdered.
They showed Elias Culps, who went missing from White Swan on Dec. 27, 2018; and Karen Louise Johnley Wallahee, who was last seen in Harrah on Nov. 7, 1987. They showed Anthony “Tony” Peters, who disappeared in October 2014, and Rosenda Sophia Strong, who went missing after going to Legends Casino in October 2018.
More than 32 Indigenous women have been murdered or have gone missing on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation over decades. Many men and and boys have disappeared, have been murdered or died mysteriously. Most of the cases remain unsolved.
Strong’s remains were found on July 4, 2019, and her death is being investigated as a homicide. Like so many others, her family and friends still seek answers — and justice.
“We’re not going to stop. We’re not going to go away. We hope to encourage and amplify your voice,” said Roxanne White, the founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People & Families who organized the sidewalk vigil and lantern release that followed at nearby Pioneer Park.
“We are here to let this community know that our loved ones will not be forgotten,” White said. Her organization represents all Indigenous missing and murdered people in raising awareness, advocating for answers and justice and supporting families.
More than 40 people stood on a slushy sidewalk on the West First Avenue side of the Topp Stop. It’s at the intersection with South Elm Street, and as cars passed by or waited for the light to change, drivers honked their horns. Some waved and shouted their support, and several people walking nearby paused to watch.
The gathering began at 4 p.m. after a prayer and song by Yakama elder Ne’sha Jackson and a short walk from a nearby parking lot over to the sidewalk. Most participants wore red or red regalia and face coverings. Along with posters showing beloved family members and friends, some people waved signs of support. One man carried a life-size red ribbon dress on a frame, holding it high above the crowd.
Traditional and popular songs played over a loudspeaker after White and Strong’s sister, Cissy Strong Reyes, spoke briefly, thanking those attending. The cousins have worked together to organize events in support of those with missing and murdered loved ones, and Reyes is a powerful advocate for her sister.
“I’m not going to stop until my sister gets justice. If you know something, say something,” Reyes said. “Justice for Rosenda and prayers for all the families still searching.”
Similar gatherings happened throughout Indian Country on Valentine’s Day. White had originally hoped to hold this event that day, but postponed it due to the weekend storms that blasted large swathes of Washington and Oregon with snow, ice and wind. Many people are still without power.
After the hourlong sidewalk vigil, participants walked to nearby Pioneer Park for a memorial lantern release at dusk. Before that, several family members spoke about the loved ones. Relatives were also honored by being presented with blankets.
Caroline Looney, her sister Mary Looney and Mary’s daughter, Sheena McCloud, all held posters and signs for Alice Ida Looney. Caroline and Mary’s younger sister was 38 when she was last seen by Mary in Wapato late on the evening of Aug. 16, 2004. A hunter found Alice Looney’s body Nov. 30, 2005, under a log on a small island in Satus Creek, about 12 miles southeast of Toppenish.
“We didn’t get justice but we got closure,” Caroline said as she stood in a circle of people around the flagpole. “Every day, it still hurts. My heart still hurts for her, but I know she’s OK; she’s with mom. I thank you all for coming and being with us in remembrance and prayers and justice for everyone.”
Along with relatives, others spoke. Jackson talked about her wish for more efforts to address this decades-old crisis, and Yakama Nation Tribal Council member Terry Heemsah echoed her thoughts.
“My words are the same as yours. What’s going on?” Heemsah said. “We need more action, more results. Prayers for all these loved ones that are out there.”
Despite the deepening cold of the winter evening, those gathered smiled as they lit the memorial lanterns and released them into the sky. White participates in and organizes many gatherings in support of families with missing and murdered loved one, and though Wednesday’s event was somber, seeing the bright lanterns rising in the dark sky was a reassuring way of honoring those who are gone.
“We do this out of our hearts because we know what you’re going through and we want to see things change here,” she said.