‘The land cries out’: Family members of missing, murdered Indigenous people share stories

State Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and People Task Force met recently

A year after the Washington State Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP) Task Force held its first meetings, the task force’s inaugural summit took place, providing a platform for Indigenous voices, a look back on the successes of the previous year, and a vision of what work still needs to be done.

Presented by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and the Attorney General Office of Washington, the summit took place Dec. 14-16 at the Emerald Queen Hotel and Casino in Tacoma.

The Washington State MMIWP Task Force was formed in May 2021 by the Washington State Attorney General Office (AGO) in order to “assess systemic causes behind the high rate of disappearances and murders of indigenous women and people.”

Murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women, and Seattle has the highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls of American cities based on available data, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI).

“It is integral for us to right the injustices, of the apathy, the lack of empathy and the lack of compassion that has been shown to our families whose loved ones go missing and murdered. … We have an opportunity in Washington state to lead the nation and we are, and we will,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk of the Pawnee Nation.

Echo-Hawk is a task force member on the executive committee, executive vice president of the Seattle Indian Health Board and director of the UIHI, who spoke at the summit about the purpose of the task force. She said she believes it is unjust for Indigenous girls to worry about being murdered or going missing.

“I want them to be advocating and building forth and continuing the beauties of our cultures and traditions. I want them to be able to focus on their language revitalization, not just on not being murdered,” Echo-Hawk said.

The summit’s first day was reserved for the “MMIWP Family Talking Circle,” which was only open to MMIWP families and survivors.

Days two and three were filled with keynote speakers, overviews of the task force, a spotlight on the Tulalip Tribal Police and grassroots organizers. There were also subcommittee presentations from the “Tribes,” “Data and Research,” “Criminal Justice and Public Safety” and “Community Resources,” along with a panel of MMIWP family and survivor stories.

On the final day, the MMIWP Task Force held its quarterly meeting.

Of the panel who shared their MMIWP stories, Lila Whitefoot of the Yakama Nation spoke with The Renton Reporter about her younger sister Agnes, who was killed nearly 30 years ago.

Agnes Whitefoot was an amazing dancer, a great pool player, and she had an amazing personality.

“She could make people laugh and she would do a little dance to help our grandpa feel better when he felt sad, make him laugh and lift his spirit,” Whitefoot said of her younger sister.

Agnes was 38 years old when she was killed on April 15, 1994, in Wapato, Washington. She was staying at the Yakama Nation Housing Authority’s Apas Goudy rental housing park where she was brutally attacked.

Three boys and several adult men gang-raped and beat Agnes, Whitefoot said. According to an article from the Yakima Herald-Republic, Agnes was found unconscious around 3:30 a.m. and was sent to St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Yakima.

Whitefoot was 15 miles from the hospital when she got the call at around 7:30 a.m.

“I remember I was the last one home. Everyone had left for school and work,” Whitefoot said. “The telephone rang and I almost didn’t answer it because I was on my way out to work. I felt an urgency that I needed to answer. It was the Yakama Nation Tribal dispatcher. She told me I needed to go to the hospital to sign paperwork for my sister’s emergency surgery.”

By the time Whitefoot had arrived, she was told that her sister’s injuries required immediate operation. “When I got there, they told me that they couldn’t wait to have me sign the papers for her surgery,” Whitefoot said.

Agnes died during surgery. The Yakima County coroner said that the cause of death was massive internal injuries and bleeding.

“The doctor explained to me that he was sorry, there was nothing they could do,” Whitefoot said. “Her insides — her pancreas, her liver, her kidneys — was all crushed … There was no way they could repair any of it.”

Only the three boys were convicted and sent to juvenile hall, but they wouldn’t testify against the older men who took part in the assault. “They were sworn to secrecy,” Whitefoot said. “The older boys got away with it.”

Whitefoot told The Reporter that she had only shared her sister’s story less than a handful of times before coming to the summit. “The land cries out when innocent blood was shed and the perpetrators walk amongst us. When someone’s murdered, the land cries out,” Whitefoot said.

Whitefoot’s first cousins Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot, Maria Olney and Gloria Tallman – who were all in attendance at the summit – also have their own MMIWP story, as their sister Daisy Mae Heath had gone missing on Oct. 29, 1987, at the age of 29.

According to TheVanished.org, Daisy Mae was presumed dead in 1994 and the FBI refers to her disappearance as a suspected homicide. When Whitefoot spoke of Patsy, Maria or Gloria, she referred to them as her sisters.

“Through the loss of Agnes, Patsy and Marie and Gloria – whose mother was Nancy, my father’s sister – really embraced me and we were sisters,” Whitefoot said. “That happened when I lost my sister, Agnes.”

Referring to others who may or may not be related by blood as brother, sister, mother, father, niece, nephew, uncle or aunt was a common occurrence throughout the summit as the days unfolded. When Patsy Whitefoot spoke of Roxanne White, a grassroots organizer of the MMIWP movement and a speaker at the summit, she called Roxanne her niece. When everyone spoke of Patsy Whitefoot, they referred to her as “auntie.”

Family and commonality were a through line during the summit and several attendees spoke about wanting family time for more stories to be told. “It’s good for us to be in the same space,” said task force member and Puyallup Tribe community member Carolyn DeFord. “We need more family time and the space to hear their voice. Everybody in the community has a role.”

During the Criminal Justice and Public Safety portion, Chief of Police Sam White of The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and Aubony Burns, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, talked about issues with policing jurisdictions, systemic barriers, and the significant data gaps when it comes to Indigenous people, an issue that came up several times throughout the summit.

“If we ignore that, we ignore a vital part of the picture,” said Burns. The two spoke about problems that were identified within criminal justice like lack of communication, lack of agreements, lack of interest, lack of resources, and “no desire to change the system.”

“There’s so much violence against our people, it breaks the heart,” said Chief White. “… most Natives become victims of people who are not tribal.”

During their presentation, White and Aubony talked about the MMIWP Task Force recommendations that were included in the Aug. 2022 interim report, which include:

1. Extend the MMIWP Task Force timeline through June 30, 2025.

2. The Task Force data and research team will pay special attention to the link between gender and violence.

3. All law enforcement agencies should expand their collaboration and coordination with federal, state, county, local, and tribal social and health services. The Task Force shall develop best practices for law enforcement agencies and for social and health services to improve this collaboration and coordination.

4. Community service and resource programs should utilize inclusive language that reflects the experiences of MMIWP families and survivors.

5. The Legislature should establish and fully fund a Cold Case Investigation Unit within the Attorney General’s Office with a focus on MMIWP cold cases.

6. All law enforcement agencies should identify and implement strategies and practices to improve communication and transparency with family members in MMIWP cases.

7. Require all law enforcement agencies to use the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

8. The Attorney General’s Office shall update and re-issue the Missing Person’s Resource.

9. Public agencies should consider adopting policies to waive or reduce fees for parks, permitting fees and other costs, and reduce administrative burdens associated with hosting large events such as MMIWP marches, rallies, vigils and memorials.

10. The Task Force will continue to provide consultation to federally-recognized tribes in support of sovereignty and self-determination.

One success highlighted from the summit was the creation of a missing Indigenous persons list from the Washington State Patrol that is updated bi-weekly. Another was the creation of the nation’s first mental health crisis hotline (dial 988, and select option 4) for Indigenous people.

For Lila Whitefoot, the summit itself was a success.

“I feel really good about it. I’ve been able to learn more about all of this. To come here and share … it’s been good,” said Whitefoot. “From first contact, our people went missing, murdered. There was never any justice of that being done. It’s something that our people had to be strong.”

For more information on the Washington State MMIWP Task Force, visit www.atg.wa.gov/washington-state-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-and-people-task-force.