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Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest
nbrennan@mcclatchy.com

A gray dress swung from a rod held above a crowd of 200 at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle. “Justice for Rosenda” was spray-painted in red on the front.

The dress was the last item Rosenda Sophia Strong — a 31-year-old mother of four and citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — had changed out of at her sister’s home before she went missing in October 2018. On July 4, 2019, her remains were found in an abandoned freezer near Toppenish, Wash.

Now a symbol of the family’s strength and cries for justice, the dress swung as her sister Cissy Strong Reyes spoke at the National Day of Awareness and Healing for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, People and Families Saturday, May 7.

“She was fun. She was a mother and a sister. And this is all I have left of her,” Reyes said at the gathering.

Reyes, who had received tips about her sister’s whereabouts before she was found, encouraged families of the missing and murdered to advocate for their loved ones with law enforcement.

“They deserve to be searched for,” she said.

Roxanne White, founder of the survivor-led grassroots organization Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, People and Families, invited guests to share posters and their stories of missing family members: Besse Handy, Freda Knows His Gun, Kaylee Mae Nelson-Jerry, Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis, Rosalita Longee and Shaulina Bulltail.

Alyshia Ramon, victim’s advocate and Tulalip Police Department Program Manager, stood with the family of Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis and shared that her job is to act as a liaison between victims’ families in law enforcement.

“A lot of times, families are told they can’t know information because it’s an open case. They don’t get updates... but there are some things that can be shared without compromising the case,” Ramon said. “Giving the family information that their case is being worked on is a lot more than nothing. “

She said she hopes other law enforcement agencies will follow the Tribes’ example.

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Fiscal sponsor Na’ah Illahee Fund, a Seattle-based Indigenous women-led organization, set up a booth to talk about their Red Blanket Fund, which provides direct assistance to individuals and families most in need of support while in search of missing loved ones or aftercare. They also had computers set up for guests to take the Native Neighborhood Survey, a questionnaire to help the organization advocate for further planning, funding and investments for the Indigenous community in Seattle.

Native-owned art and lifestyle brand Eighth Generation donated 10 blankets to be gifted to honored guests who are survivors, family members and victim advocates: Annita Lucchesi, Carolyn Deford, Deborah Maytubee-Shipman, Lenny Hayes, Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, Matthew Warbonnet, Mildred Anne Quaempts, Ne’sha Jackson and Patricia Whitefoot.

Songs, dances and prayers were offered from West Shore Canoe Family, Tulalip youth and Seattle Clear Sky Native Youth Council.

Behind the crisis in Washington

According to Washington State Patrol’s Missing Native American Persons report, as of May 2, there are 126 Indigenous people currently missing in the state — 40 men, 34 women, 31 girls and 21 boys.

“Washington is doing better, but we’re drowning here. It keeps getting worse. We keep screaming louder,” Deborah Maytubee-Shipman, founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, said at the event.

In Washington, more than four times as many Indigenous women go missing than white women, according to research conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle.

The institute’s research found Washington state has the second-highest number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. Of the 71 urban areas studied, Seattle had the highest number of murdered Indigenous women and Tacoma had the highest number of missing cases.

In March, Washington passed the country’s first-ever alert system for missing or murdered Indigenous women and people shortly following the launch of the state Attorney General’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Taskforce.

“We want to be considered human,” said enrolled Tulalip Tribal citizen and the event’s emcee Jobey Williams.

Washington Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, speaks Thursday, March 31, 2022, before Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill sponsored by Lekanoff that creates a first-in-the-nation statewide alert system for missing Indigenous people — particularly women, in Quil Ceda Village, near Marysville, Wash., north of Seattle. The law creates a system similar to Amber Alerts, which are used for missing children in many states. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

On Wednesday, May 4, President Biden proclaimed May 5 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.

“We remember the Indigenous people who we have lost to murder and those who remain missing and commit to working with Tribal Nations to ensure any instance of a missing or murdered person is met with swift and effective action,” he said.

The President said he is committed to building on the successes of the Violence Against Women Act and implementing the requirements of Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act — legislation focused on combating the issues surrounding missing or murdered Indigenous persons.

He also announced that through the American Rescue Plan, an additional $35 million in grants will be allocated for Tribes to provide temporary housing, assistance and supportive services to victims of domestic and dating violence, supplemental funding for the StrongHearts Native Helpline and additional funding for services for sexual assault survivors.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bryan Newland hosted a listening session this week with Washington tribal citizens, leaders and state Rep. Deborah Lekanoff, D-40th District, and U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-4th District. Newland heard from the community about the urgent need to establish a missing and murdered unit in Central Washington.

“We will make sure those who are missing or murdered are not invisible,” Newland tweeted following his visit to Yakama Nation.

The Justice Department and the Department of the Interior announced this week the Not Invisible Act Commission is set to begin its active advisory role in combating violence against Native people.

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Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps. 

This article was published via AP Storyshare.