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Columbia River Treaty Tribes continue fight for justice and healing during MMIW Awareness Month and Beyond

May 31, 2024

May was declared National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Awareness Month and was filled with events, marches, and presentations to bring attention to the ongoing MMIWP crisis. Above, dancers at the May 4 Oregon Ravens football game honoring MMIWP. Photos by Jill-Marie Gavin

With the end of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Awareness Month, media attention on this crisis has begun to fade, but Indigenous women and people will continue their year-round fight for justice and working to remain safe.

On May 3, President Joe Biden issued a national proclamation and Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek issued a state proclamation recognizing May 5 as a day of awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons, though most Tribal community members and activists held events throughout the month. These proclamations underscored the urgent need to address the systemic issues contributing to this crisis.

The MMIWP is a persistent tragedy that affects Indigenous communities every day, not just in May. Throughout the year, Tribal communities hold events to raise awareness and seek justice, with May being a pivotal month for visibility. This three-part series highlights the unwavering efforts of Columbia River treaty tribes to honor their missing and murdered loved ones, demonstrating resilience and solidarity. Events such as community marches, rallies, art contests, and the Columbia River Round Dance to Honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous People epitomized this spirit, offering a space for advocacy, remembrance, and love.

“The MMIW/R crisis requires us all to stand together against this systemic problem and violence toward Native peoples,” said Aja DeCoteau (Yakama), executive director of CRITFC. “The many local events offered throughout the region allowed us to show solidarity and commitment to this critical issue and support those of us who have personally experienced the trauma of this issue or have family or friends who have.”

Columbia River Round Dance brings healing and fellowship to families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People

Columbia Gorge residents dance during the Columbia River Round Dance to Honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in The Dalles May 3. Tribal members travelled from the Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Nez Perce Tribe, and beyond to attend the event.

THE DALLES – The second annual Columbia River Round Dance to Honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) brought healing, laughter, fellowship and awareness to the Nch’i Wana (Columbia River) community.

More than 550 people attended the round dance, held at the Fort Dalles Readiness Center  the night of May 3.

The round dance was the result of months of planning. The lead organizational sponsor was the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) with CRITFC Enforcement’s victims advocate Charliann Herkshan (Warm Springs) leading the planning committee.

Vendors lined the halls and main room of the event. Some provided information and resource contacts for housing, safety, and other services. Others offered Native food, jewelry, and apparel. From cake pops and cotton candy to t-shirts and homemade soap, the vendors made the bustling market of the round dance a popular destination throughout the dances.

Wild Rose served as the host drum for the round dance and kept the floor moving with laughter and rhythm throughout the evening. Amidst the songs were guest speakers bravely sharing how their own families have been affected by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People’s crisis. Their stories focused on the importance of remaining vigilant while continuing to advocate for more allyship and lobbying to create further awareness and stronger laws and policies nationwide.

Jack Spencer shares his experience losing his young son more than three decades ago. The case is still unsolved. Spencer spoke about the trauma of the loss and shared how his family has supported each other to keep hope and healing as priorities.

The healing nature of the round dance made the heaviness of the stories of trauma lighter to bear. The choice of a round dance as an awareness event was aimed to do exactly that, according to Herkshan.

“The singing, drumming, dancing, and sharing of stories have always been vital elements of our culture, serving as powerful tools to unite and strengthen our community,” said Jeremy Takala, Yakama Nation Council Member and CRITFC Vice-chair. “These traditions brought us together to raise awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis, a cause that deeply affects us all.”

Takala attended the event with his family and felt moved by the speakers and all the attendees.  “I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to each of you who participated,” Takala said in his remarks at the event. “Your presence and involvement were more than just acts of solidarity; they were acts of healing. Through your contributions, we not only brought attention to this critical issue but also fostered a sense of hope and healing for our community. Thank you for standing with us and for helping to create a space where we can remember, honor, and heal together.”

Entire families came out to attend the round dance. They listened and joined in the social dancing bringing a balance of awareness and healing.

A meal was prepared by volunteers, some coming from Nch’i Wana Housing staff and board of directors. Herkshan said of the evening, “I’m incredibly thankful for our community and all the folks who travelled to attend and support our round dance. Our goal was to bring more awareness to the Missing & Murdered Indigenous People Crisis and provide healing and support to our Indigenous community along the Columbia River,” Herkshan said of the event.

Herkshan also said, “We had around 550 people attend this year and it was a beautiful evening of dancing, sharing a meal, and enjoying time with our relatives. I’m thankful for our guest speakers for their courage and willingness to share their stories with us. Their testimonies were heartfelt and inspiring, and my hope is that our non-Native guests walked away understanding the MMIP crisis more and its impacts on our people.”

Bree Black Horse Sworn In as Federal Prosecutor to Combat MMIWP Crisis

United States Attorney Vanessa R. Waldref administering the oath of office to Assistant United States Attorney Bree R. Black Horse. The swearing-in ceremony was held at the Yakama Nation Justice Center in Toppenish, Washington. Photo courtesy United States Department of Justice.

TOPPENISH – Bree Black Horse’s swearing-in as a federal prosecutor on May 2 was a significant step in addressing violence on tribal lands. A citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Black Horse took her oath in front of the Yakama Nation Multi-Purpose Justice Center, marking a renewed commitment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to combat the crisis of MMIWP.

Wearing Northern Plains Blackfoot regalia, Black Horse’s ceremony was attended by federal, tribal, state, and local, law enforcement, as well as Yakama Nation leaders. The event opened with a traditional sacred song by Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chair Gerald Lewis, who expressed hope that Black Horse’s work would bring closure to families affected by MMIWP.

Aggie Bautista, whose mother was murdered on the Yakama Nation reservation in 2019, attended the ceremony and felt relieved to have someone who understands Native culture and generational trauma in such a crucial role. “It’s a relief for Indian Country to have an Indigenous sister in place to assist families like ours,” Bautista said.

U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref highlighted the importance of building trust with Native communities through actions and advocacy. “Our commitment is not new, but it is renewed,” she said, emphasizing the need for difficult conversations to address and overcome the MMIWP crisis.

“I felt called to do this,” Black Horse shared in her statement, expressing her dedication to serve and protect Indigenous communities throughout the region and the western United States.

From Mission to Milwaukie: Umatilla tribes show up to support MMIWP awareness during rainy football game

Member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and 2023-2024 University of Oregon Miss Indigenous, Keyen Singer, dances fancy shawl during the halftime show in Milwaukie.

MILWAUKIE – In a heartfelt journey of honor and advocacy, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) made a trek across the state to the city of Milwaukie, Oregon to support fellow community member Kola Shippentower (Umatilla) in a special Women’s Football Conference match that honored Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. The May 4 football game pitted the Oregon Ravens, where Shippentower is the running back, against the Seattle Majestics. The game was dedicated to the memory of missing and murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives.

Before the game, Indigenous community members took to the field for a flag song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the national anthem. Ravens players wore black sleeves adorned with a red handprint, symbolizing the MMIWP movement and the silent voices of missing relatives.

In addition to being a professional football player, Shippentower is also a fierce MMIWP activist. She said when the Ravens game schedule came out in early January, she was determined to find a way for her team to be involved in the MMIWP week of action in May. “Seeing that we had a home game, I thought about how I could incorporate the game into my schedule while staying active in my community within this movement,” said Shippentower.

She said advocacy work that many of the players carry out off the field aligns closely with this cause.

She mobilized the youth of her community to participate in the halftime of the game. Clad in red regalia and with red handprints painted over their mouths, they performed a powerful dance under the stadium lights at Milwaukie High School, as rain poured down upon the resilient dancers.

Kola Shippentower Thompson embraces a dancer after the emotional halftime dancing demonstration. The halftime show was planned by Shippentower to bring attention to the ongoing MMIWP crisis.

On the day of the event rain came and stayed. Shippentower found this significant, she said, because it is believed by those within the tribes that when the rains come they are washing away of loved ones footsteps as they make their journey from this life, the CTUIR youth danced through the showers. Though shivering and cold at the end, each of the dancers and participants of the events found warmth within each other’s dedication to ensuring those who have been lost are never forgotten.

After the half-time performance, the dancers gathered with Shippentower for a group hug and moment of raw emotion. Both Shippentower and the youth shed their tears before letting the rain wash away that sorrow as well and heading in to get warm.

Reflecting on the day, Shippentower said, “Rain washes away footsteps, allowing us to move forward and honor our loved ones in a good way.” The hours-long drive made by Tribal members to Milwaukie, marked by profound remembrance and advocacy, underscored the enduring strength and unity of the CTUIR community in their fight against the MMIWP crisis.

Garian McDonald, enrolled CTUIR, joined a larger group of dancers traveling to the area to participate in the Raven’s halftime show. McDonald is a men’s fancy dancer.

Shippentower, who also founded The Wisáwca Project to train people in self-defense, emphasized the importance of awareness and action. “Bringing together my passion for football and advocacy has been powerful,” she said, noting the impact of the halftime performance which featured dancers like 14-year-old Abraham Shippentower, who remembered lost loved ones during the event.

“My hopes are that people who don’t know about this issue – and there were many on the team who weren’t aware of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives – will realize the extent of the injustice, trauma, and horrific situations people face daily,” said Shippentower.

By Jill-Marie Gavin, CRITFC Communications