Rosenda Strong, a descendant of the Yakama Nation and citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, went missing Oct. 2, 2018. She was 31 years old and a mother of four.
When her older sister, Cissy Strong Reyes, first reported Strong missing, she said the police didn’t take her concern seriously, since Strong had a history of drug use.
“They wanted to dismiss it like she just took off,” Reyes said.
Nine months later, her remains were discovered by two unhoused men in a freezer near Toppenish. Since Strong’s case is still under investigation by the FBI, the agency has yet to release her remains to the family.
“She was found July 4, 2019, and she’s still not home,” said Reyes. “All I have left of her are posters and banners.”
Strong’s was just one of a collection of stories shared at Othello Park Saturday, May 15, where hundreds gathered after a prayer walk to raise awareness for and honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. The event, said Roxanne White — one of its leaders — was meant to provide a space for healing as well as a call to action.
Saturday’s prayer walk followed a national week of action from April 29 through May 5, which focused specifically on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirits (MMIWG2S), calling attention to a crisis of gender-based violence suffered by Indigenous community members in the United States. The movement is more commonly known by the acronym MMIW, which stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
A 2008 report from the Department of Justice found that in some areas of the U.S., the murder rate faced by Indigenous women is as high as 10 times the national average, and activists say that their calls to investigate the deaths and disappearances of loved ones are often ignored.
When it comes to understanding how many Indigenous women in the U.S. have gone missing, the data is spotty — a problem that can obfuscate the scale of the crisis nationwide. A study conducted by Seattle’s Urban Indian Health Institute in 2018 found that data on the crisis was “scarce,” particularly for Indigenous women gone missing in urban areas.
Following the work of families and activists across the country, the epidemic of MMIWG2S is beginning to gain the attention of local and national politicians. Two Washington state laws, passed in 2018 and 2019, sought to address the crisis by requiring the Washington State Patrol to work with Native communities to study MMIW and create two positions specifically dedicated to investigating their cases. As of May 3, the State Patrol reported over 90 cases of missing Indigenous people (of any gender) in Washington.
At the national level, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — who recently became the first Native American to hold that title — announced the creation of the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The MMU aims to bolster ongoing investigations into MMIP while also collecting data about the nationwide crisis.
But the focus of last Saturday’s prayer walk wasn’t statistics or specific government policies. Rather, it was a space for families of MMIP to express their grief and anger at a lack of accountability for the disappearances of their loved ones. It was also a space of community healing. Families led the crowd in song and chants as they marched down Rainier Avenue toward Othello, t-shirts and banners bearing images and names of the missing.
The event was a reminder of what Roxanne White says Indigenous families have known for a long time.
“It’s not congressional leaders. It’s not any agencies or organizations that lead this movement,” White said. “This movement is led by families: mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties — predominantly women. … They carry these stories.”
Christy Carley is a freelance journalist in Seattle and former English teacher in Spain. Find her on Twitter @christy_carley.
Read more of the May 19-25, 2021 issue.