For last weekend’s Washington State 1B track and field championships, Rosalie Fish painted a red handprint over her mouth, the fingers extending across her cheekbones. On her right leg, she painted the letters “MMIW,” standing for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
As a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, raising awareness for the issue was as natural as running.
“I do like to think in native communities, the women are especially strong in the way they voice themselves,” said Fish, Muckleshoot Tribal School senior. “I do see a little bit of hope … I think that the MMIW movement is getting more attention than it has in the past.”
Some runners at the meet in Cheney asked Fish if the handprint was war paint. She found this offensive because of the stereotype that native people are violent. A few asked her if the painting was traditional. This bothered her less, though in Fish’s tribe, traditional face painting is for protection. The paint did not make Fish feel protected.
“The first day, when I was getting ready to put the paint on my face, I was pretty nervous,” Fish said. “It kind of felt like it was making me really vulnerable. … Everybody was staring at me; I’m scared to make eye contact with anybody because what are they going to say about my paint.”
MMIW seeks to address the issue of the thousands of indigenous women who are missing or were murdered. According to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, 5,712 of these cases were reported in 2016, but only 116 were put into the U.S. Department of Justice database. With 71 cases, Washington was second only to New Mexico, which had 78 cases of murdered or missing indigenous women.
“You can’t not talk about it in native communities,” Fish said. “It’s just kind of unavoidable because you wonder what happened to this person. Why don’t I see them around anymore?”
In April, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that aims to close jurisdictional problems that prevent indigenous cases from receiving a thorough investigation.
Fish’s advocacy at the meet was inspired by Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, a Boston Marathon runner who dedicated each mile to a different murdered or missing indigenous woman.
“I saw a post of her with the paint in her running uniform and I just felt really inspired,” Fish said. “When I brought it up to her I didn’t even think she was going to respond, just because she’s super busy, but she actually responded and was really enthusiastic.”
Because Fish was running each event in honor of a murdered or missing indigenous woman, it was important to her to get a medal in each event. Even though this ran contrary to typical strategy, Michael Williams, Muckleshoot track and cross country coach, said he supported Fish’s decision.
“She sacrificed some of her time because she was wanting to give equal effort for each woman,” Williams said.
Williams said he told Fish, “The outcome of the race is not as important as what you’re doing with the paint.
“This brought so much pride, more than her winning first place or how her team did, hearing people talk about these things. It was a special moment that I may never, ever be able to see again.”
During the events, running felt different for Fish. She felt a heaviness in her legs and arms, she was atypically short of breath.
“Especially when I ran (the) 2-mile, it was kind of hard not to choke up too much, because I was running for someone in my community,” Fish said.
Fish ran that particular race for Renee Davis, a pregnant woman who was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in 2016. Fish’s cousin is the caregiver for Davis’ two children. Fish dedicated her 1,600-meter race to Alice Looney, her 800 to Jacqueline Salyers and her 400 to Misty Upham.
Fish brought a poster to the state meet with information and photos of the women. As she received her medals, she hung them next to the women on the poster.
Even after the meet was over, Fish still didn’t feel like herself.
“I had a lot of people ask me, ‘Aren’t you happy to be state champion?’ ” Fish said. “Suddenly, my state meet felt insignificant compared to what I was running for.”
Daniel helped Fish through this process.
“I felt sad and really emotional, and she told me that’s how she felt after she ran, and that it was normal,” Fish said.
Fish was pleasantly surprised that most people were supportive and curious. The latter was her objective: Fish hoped if people knew what was happening, they would care.
“I didn’t expect as many people to care, which is pretty pessimistic, but I was pleasantly surprised with how many people actually wanted to see why I was running,” Fish said.
In the fall, Fish will attend Iowa Central Community College, where she will continue to explore her role as an athlete activist.
“There’s not really any way that I could separate the two,” Fish said. “Being a runner is part of who I am, and caring about these issues is part of who I am.”