Local advocates for missing, murdered Indigenous people testify to state task force in Toppenish

TOPPENISH, Wash. — A new taskforce dedicated to addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Washington State met for the first time Thursday in Toppenish.

Dozens of victims’ family members traveled from all over the state to share public testimony and meet with task force members at Legends Casino, but were disappointed when they arrived to find a nearly empty auditorium.

MMIW advocate Ne’Sha Jackson questioned why they traveled to the casino for the meeting to share painful memories, when the task force stayed home to watch virtually.

“I mean it’s just all us crying and pouring our little hearts out to everybody, but we need to have some vital answers about what’s been done,” Jackson said.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson provided a brief opening message via Zoom ,which was projected on two large screens within the meeting room. Other task force members watched through Zoom or the livestream provided by TV-W.

“This event is really by and for the community,” Ferguson said. “I just really want to express my deep, deep appreciation for all that you do.”

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Advocates were still determined to share their stories and speak the names of their lost loved ones. They spoke of facing disinterest and disbelief from law enforcement, seeing the number of missing and murdered Indigenous people underreported and feeling entirely invisible.

“These cases and murders are completely preventable,” MMIW advocate Rosalie Fish said. “Indigenous victims and families are doing this on their own, putting aside their own healing because if we don’t bring up these names, no one will.”

Research shows Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at rates higher than any other ethnic group in the U.S. and are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault.

Women spoke of losing sisters, brothers, mothers, daughters, cousins — and of fearing they or another family member might be the next to join the long list of missing and murdered loved ones.

“Each of these womens’ families were left to search and receive justice on their own, all the while wondering : Is she warm? Is she fed? Is she alive?” Fish said.

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Cissy Strong Reyes, whose sister was found dead in a freezer in July 2019 in a remote location off of U.S. Highway 97, spoke about her frustrations with her sister’s case. While it’s been several years since her disappearance, the FBI only recently released Rosenda Strong’s body for her family to put her to rest and there’s still been little to no progress on the investigation.

“It’s hard. It’s heavy,” Reyes said. “I don’t wish this on anybody, not even the ones that took my sister’s life because then I would be just like them.”

Ferguson created the 23-member task force earlier this year to assess systemic causes behind the high rate of disappearances and murders of Indigenous women, including tribe representatives and local, state and federal policymakers.

According to a news release from Ferguson’s office, the task force will:

  • Assess current data collection and reporting practices relating to MMIW/P
  • Review prosecutorial trends
  • Identify resources to support victim services
  • Make recommendations for increasing training for best practices when working with tribes and tribal communities
  • Report its findings in two reports to the governor and legislature in August 2022 and June 2023

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Annie Forsman-Adams, a policy analyst for the task force, attended the meeting in-person and said while these efforts have been a long-time coming, she has high hopes for what this collaboration can accomplish.

“As an Indigenous woman myself, it’s hard; it’s hard every day to see those numbers,” Forsman-Adams said. “But we’re going to make the world a safer place for Indigenous women and that’s what we’re really focused on.”

Task force members will have a second, online-only meeting Friday to unpack the testimony shared Thursday and decide on their next steps.

Members appointed to the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force include:

  • Sen. Manka Dhingra
  • Sen. John Braun
  • Rep. Debra Lekanoff
  • Rep. Gina Mosbrucker
  • Executive Secretary Athena Sanchey-Yallup — Yakama Nation
  • Councilmember Anna Bean — Puyallup Tribe
  • Councilmember Anita Mitchell — Muckleshoot Tribe
  • Afton Servas — Kalispel Tribe
  • Abigail Echo-Hawk with the Seattle Indian Health Board
  • Maureen Rosette with NATIVE Project
  • Laura Platero with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board
  • Vicki Lowe with the American Indian Health Commission
  • Community Member Patricia Whitefoot — Yakama Nation
  • Community Member Carolyn DeFord — Puyallup Tribe
  • Craig Bill with the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs
  • Patti Gosch with Washington State Patrol
  • Annie Forsman-Adams with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office
  • Sam White, Chief of Police, Lower Elwha Klallam Police Department
  • Councilmember Jani Hitchen, Pierce County Council
  • Councilmember Chris Stearns, City of Auburn
  • Aubony Burns, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, King County Prosecutor’s Office
  • A to-be-announced representative with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • A to-be-announced elected official with the Lummi Nation