TOPPENISH — Like several other tribal leaders attending a summit Monday on missing and murdered indigenous women, Jill-Marie Gavin had come from a distance.
Gavin traveled from the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon for the event at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center winter lodge. A longtime journalist, Gavin is one of the newest members of the Umatilla’s board of trustees, sworn in earlier this month. She has visited the Yakama Nation in the past for events raising awareness about missing Native women.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse and Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Department of Interior, led the summit. They invited representatives of Washington’s 29 recognized tribes, along with tribal leaders in surrounding states, and state and federal officials. Sweeney wanted to hear directly from people impacted by the decadeslong crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.
While the topic is difficult, it must not stay in the shadows, Gavin said. “Thank you for making the journey here and making a difference for Native women,” she told Sweeney, who is Iñupiat from Barrow, Alaska.
Among the approximately 50 people attending were 16 tribal leaders and 12 federal and state officials, including Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale; Craig Bill, director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs; and all four members of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council’s special missing and murdered indigenous women committee. Nearly two dozen community members attended as well, along with a few Yakama Nation Police Department officers and investigators.
Sweeney met with members of the Yakama tribal council and general council before the summit started. She appreciated that opportunity and also wanted to recognize the advocacy by Native women in the state of Washington, she said.
“I sincerely thank you for never forgetting those who fell victim to murder or are still missing,” Sweeney added.
It’s unknown exactly how many women and girls, and men and boys, have gone missing and have been murdered or died under mysterious circumstances on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation. There are 31 open cases on or near the reservation on top of 71 open cases in the Seattle area, Newhouse said. But no one knows the entire scope of the crisis because of underreporting or incorrect reporting, among other issues.
“We are tired — tired of relatives missing,” said Lottie Sam, a member of the Yakama tribal council’s special MMIW committee.
She mentioned Rachel Lorraine Norris, a 38-year-old Yakama woman who has been missing since her apartment building in Wapato burned early Nov. 14. Last seen later that afternoon in Goldendale, Norris lost everything in the fire. She is a popular employee at Legends Casino and is missed, Sam said.
“She has a lot of friends and we miss her greatly,” she added.
Gavin noted the case of Rosenda Sophia Strong, a 31-year-old mother of four who went missing in early October 2018. Strong’s remains were found July 4
in an abandoned freezer in a field off U.S. Highway 97 near Toppenish. Strong’s murder is still under investigation. Like Gavin, Strong was a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Enough is enough
Native women and girls have suffered disproportionate levels of physical and sexual violence for centuries. One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, and human trafficking and domestic violence also impact many Native women.
“This crisis has been going on for decades, many decades. The people in this room are essentially saying, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,’” Newhouse said. “And now people are taking notice in Washington, D.C., as well. We’re all working hard to combat this crisis and deliver justice for these women and their families.”
Even as they praised those participating Monday, some noted how forums and meetings centered on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women have happened many times. They’ve heard empty promises of more attention to missing persons cases, more investigations, more resources that never came through.
“It’s somewhat ironic. In 2007-08 ... we had the attorney general for the United States in this building. He made a statement. He promised to do something regarding missing and murdered Native women on the Yakama Reservation,” said Yakama Nation Tribal Council vice chairman Virgil Lewis Sr.
Lewis was talking about a pledge by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who promised a cold-case initiative in response to the high number of unsolved deaths throughout Indian Country. The first federal probe began with the Yakamas.
Local families of the victims were skeptical that authorities put enough effort and resources into solving the cases. Many complained that FBI agents didn’t show up years ago to conduct any field investigations. The FBI has jurisdiction to investigate all serious crimes involving Native Americans on tribal lands.
Sweeney and others pledged real action this time. President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month to create an interagency task force to look into missing and murdered indigenous people, and there’s been legislation on the state and federal level.
Sweeney has already committed to returning to the Yakama Reservation, she noted.
Leaders agreed Monday, as they have many times, that accurate data collection and sharing are key. Law enforcement agencies must communicate and work together more efficiently, and should receive training in trauma-informed care. Quick and attentive response to missing persons cases is key.
They and others continue to look for solutions so summits such as Monday’s gathering won’t be necessary someday.
“When things like this happen, it really impacts our families and our communities,” said Rodney Cawston, of the Colville Business Council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “Myself as a leader, I ask myself, ‘What can we do to improve this?’ We know there’s a lot of underreporting.”
“We do need to be able to work with other law enforcement agencies, state and federal,” he said.
It’s hard to talk about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people, Cawston said. But as Mary Jane Miles noted, it’s necessary. Miles is a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
“We’ve got to discuss all this stuff,” she said. “I just feel that this is a step in the right direction.”