Stephanie Culps stood with several others at Pioneer Park in Toppenish on a damp, chilly February evening to talk about her missing cousin, Elias Chief Culps.
Two years ago, she changed her life by becoming clean and sober, settling into safe housing after being homeless and working toward regaining custody of her three sons. Now Stephanie wanted to speak for Elias. His uncle, Jerome Culps Jr., was with her. Both live in Yakima.
“It was actually the first time I kind of stood up for him,” she said of the vigil and lantern release Feb. 17. “I didn’t really feel comfortable and I wasn’t really sure what to say. I don’t really talk in front of people, especially in such a personal matter.
“I just kind of winged it and said it.”
Family and friends of the many missing and murdered Indigenous people on and beyond the Yakama reservation understand that. Some don’t talk publicly of their missing or murdered loved ones, say their names or share their photos for personal or cultural reasons. They haven’t for years as they wait for siblings and parents, aunts and uncles, children or grandparents to return home.
All of them want answers and justice.
The Washington State Patrol maintains a list of active cases of missing Indigenous people and updates it every two weeks. The June 28 list includes 21 cases in Yakima County and within the Yakama reservation.
Elias, who would be 27, has been missing from White Swan since late December 2018. Stephanie has heard he may have gotten a ride, possibly to another state or with potentially dangerous people. But nothing has led to solid leads on where he is or what may have happened to him. Family and friends of missing people usually hear all kinds of stories.
Dozens of Native women and girls have gone missing, have been found murdered and have died mysteriously on the Yakama reservation. The decades-long crisis has received intense attention in recent years. Advocates and others have sponsored legislation to try and address the staggering level of physical and sexual violence that Native women face.
Relatives and friends of missing and murdered men and boys are speaking out as well, broadening the movement to missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“We don’t forget our men and two-spirit people,” Roxanne White said at the Feb. 17 vigil, which she organized. “They’re not forgotten and we’re not going to stop.”
Elias’ birthday was Feb. 13. It made the vigil even more painful, but it was important to keep his name out there. Sobriety has sharpened Stephanie Culps’ focus.
“Before I went to treatment ... I used to walk down all those streets there in Toppenish, looking for my next high, looking for Elias, going to people I thought knew something,” she said.
Hoping for answers
Stephanie grew up near the Columbia River and the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. She is a Yakama tribal citizen, as is Elias. Stephanie moved to the Yakama reservation a few years before Elias went missing.
Though they didn’t grow up together, they are close in age — Stephanie is 29 — and spent a lot of time with each other before Elias left his White Swan home Dec. 27, 2018, and disappeared. Stephanie moved to the Yakama reservation in 2016.
“I used to party and drink with him. ... All he did was stay home; drugs had ahold of him real bad. I was there right by his side, doing the same thing he was,” she said. “A lot of my family haven’t really done anything about it. They’re still in their addiction as well. They’re kind of grieving in their own way, and not healthy ways.”
“My memories aren’t the best memories with Elias, but still they are memories I hold on to,” she said.
Elias graduated from White Swan High School in 2012. Counselors and teachers hoped he would succeed in life, but he had already suffered a terrible personal blow.
On Oct. 31, 2010, his older brother Apollo Culps — who was the same age as Stephanie — committed suicide at home, she said. A neck tattoo of his brother’s name is one of the identifying features listed on the missing person flyer for Elias. It also includes his height of 5 feet 9 inches to 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weight of 180 to 190 pounds.
“When I started getting to know him ... he was already into that lifestyle,” Stephanie said. Apollo’s suicide “had a big impact on what led him down that road.”
Despite his personal struggles, “He liked to joke around; he was like the class clown,” she said of Elias. “He fished on the Columbia River. He provided for his family. He was very traditional.”
Elias cleaned the house and cooked for their grandparents, Stephanie said. She occasionally visits his family’s home to check on them and make sure they have what they need. She always asks, “Has anyone come forward about Elias? Anything new about him?”
“They’re like, ‘No, we haven’t heard anything,’” she said.
Michelle Joe of Yakima, a well-known advocate for missing people, is helping Stephanie by serving as an administrator for a Facebook page, Missing Elias Culps. Joe’s son, Cody Turner, 24, went missing from his grandmother’s home in Yakima on July 26, 2015.
As the mother of three boys who is working and attending Heritage University for a bachelor’s degree in business management, Stephanie is busy and doesn’t post on the page often, but her remarks are heartfelt.
“Missing you always bro, can hear your laugh see your smile and hear your voice,” she wrote on May 6. “Creator, please hear my prayers and bring my bro home. It’s time for him to come home. He wants to come home.”
‘I know this is wrong’
Stephanie has heard a few stories about Elias, which occasionally make her wonder if she is doing the right thing “by putting this all out there,” she said.
“I know things have been said about him disappearing. Fingers are pointed. Somebody has to know something,” she said. “This is all I’m trying to do is stand up here and be his voice.”
When White invited her to speak for Elias at the Feb. 17 vigil, Stephanie was honored. Though she isn’t immediate family, “We share the same blood. I knew him before he disappeared. I know what kind of person he is,” she said.
“I know this is wrong.”
There aren’t many photos of Elias on the Facebook page. Stephanie included a few on a poster she made for the vigil. She keeps the poster in the back window of her car.
“I keep that in my car all the time. The words are kind of faded on it but his picture and his information — it’s all on there,” she said. “I just travel with that in my car. People who are in traffic at a red light, they could see it. They could read it.”
She plans to get copies made and post them around the Lower Yakima Valley, in particular around the White Swan area, and is willing to do anything to spread more awareness about Elias’ disappearance. Hopefully something turns up or someone comes forward.
“That’s what I’m praying for,” she said.