Families of missing, murdered indigenous people find strength in community
TOPPENISH, Wash. — While the holiday season is tough for anyone who’s lost a loved one, activists say it’s especially trying for indigenous families whose loved ones remain missing or whose killers have never been brought to justice.
Families from across the Northwest gathered Sunday at the Yakama Nation Toppenish Community Center to remember missing and murdered indigenous people, to share their experiences and to feel free to speak to others who truly understand.
The event was organized by Cissy Strong Reyes, whose sister — Rosenda Strong — was missing for nine months before she was found dead in a remote area of Toppenish.
Reyes spoke, along with cousin to Rosenda and activist Roxanne White, who called out the injustice of ignorance and silence surrounding the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people.
“Nobody has been paying attention except for us,” White said. “We live here; we’re the ones that are burying our relatives all the time.”
A Washington State Patrol report from earlier this year found that 56 indigenous women are missing in Washington state, with 20 missing from the Yakama Nation.
But due to underreporting and racial misclassification, activists say the total number could be as high as 80 indigenous women currently missing statewide.
“Our family, when they go out, they think they’re just gonna have a good time,” White said. “We have to worry if we’ll ever see them again.”
Rachel Norris, a Yakama woman, has been missing since Nov. 14. She disappeared just hours after she lost everything she owned in an accidental fire at her Wapato apartment.
Her aunt, Kathryn Schwartz, told the crowd Sunday that while there’s been rumors regarding Rachel’s location, none have led to her being found. She pleaded for anyone with information to contact the authorities.
“The family really just needs to hear her, hug her and reassure her that everything will be OK,” Schwartz said. “We want her to know that she is important to all of us and we really all just want her home.”
Earlier this year, Tanya Miller’s sister, Alillia “Lala” Minthorn, was found dead in the hills north of Brownstown; Miller only learned of her death in August.
Since then, she’s been struggling to get through the holidays. It was Lala’s birthday in October: she would have been 26.
Miller told the dozens of people in the crowd she came to the event to hopefully hear something from one of the speakers that would help her to move on.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to let go,” Miller said. “I don’t understand it. I don’t like it. And I don’t know what to do with all this hurt and anger that I have inside.”
No one speaking on Sunday is a stranger to that type of pain; Tina’Michelle McLemore has been feeling it for the past decade, since her niece Alyssa McLemore went missing.
“This is a journey that no one should have to be on,” McLemore said.
For a long time, McLemore said her family was alone: they didn’t have a community of people experiencing the same feelings, somewhere she could feel free to speak and cry and pray without judgment.
“After a decade … You start to think that everybody’s given up on her, and nobody really cares,” McLemore said. “You guys are proving people wrong. You guys are proving it to my heart.”
Even when a loved one is found, even when their killer has been identified, activists say there’s no guarantee that they’ll be charged, convicted or serve jail time for the crime.
Leonard Keith Eagle was killed in Butte, Mont., in 2015; his sister, Jolene Barrientes, continues to seek justice for his death.
“His murderer is well-known,” Barrientes said. “His murderer was on parole for another stabbing when he stabbed and killed my brother and nothing has ever been done.”
Barrientes says while most people look at the number of women missing or murdered, there’s another number that doesn’t get talked about a lot: how many killers remain free.
“The judicial system has failed us in one way or another: either to not find our loved ones or to not give them justice,” Barrientes said.
Barrientes says that’s why everyone came to the event: she says in one way or another, they come together because the people who are charged with exacting justice have failed to do so.
“I don’t know what else to do to get him justice, so I come here and I bring awareness and I say his name: Leaonard Keith Eagle,” Barrientes said. “I don’t want him to be swept under the rug.”
All the speakers say they’ll continue to speak out and give voice to the murdered and missing, who they miss deeply.