Imagine reporting a loved one missing to local authorities and not being offered any help. Being told by detectives your niece fits the profile of a stressed-out, partying young mother, and there is no need to worry. This reality is common for Native American families impacted by a criminal justice system that has valued other women’s lives over Native American women throughout history. Native families are often left to form their search parties, relying only on their tribal communities for help.
“I will never forget how we were treated by the detectives,” Mary Stilson said about the tragic death of her niece Margaret Cordova in 2004. Margaret was 20 years old at the time, a young mother of a toddler and a Flat Head tribal member. She was kidnapped, raped and murdered Jan. 17, 2004, in Spokane by an unregistered sex offender. The articles focused solely on the violent crime of the predator, minimizing the life that was taken by never mentioning anything personal about her. “No one ever asked us who she was until the end of the trial,” says Mary in response to the shortsighted reporting about Margaret’s case.
On July 7, 2019, a Spokane headline read, “Victim in deadly Wandermere drive-by identified.” This article and all the others preceding failed to mention anything personable about Misty Hirsh. She was a mother, an educator for the Salish Kootenai College, and a 38-year-old Blackfeet tribal member. The media called attention to Misty allegedly returning a stolen purse with remorse to the man who took her life. The public is only provided this possible information about Misty’s character, which feeds into harmful stereotypes that contribute to Native American women’s lives being less valued in society.
Nateldella King, a dear friend of Misty’s and an enrolled tribal member of the Northern Arapaho Nation, recalls hearing this devastating news through a series of cold articles. Mrs. King has been directly impacted by this history of violence inflicted upon Native American women through the loss of Misty, her immediate family members, and while living in Montana when she fought for her own life. “Growing up, we shared horror stories in hushed tones. The awareness has always been there; we had to be hypervigilant to protect ourselves.”
As of April 26, there are 42 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Washington. The Department of Justice has reported that Native American women are 10 times more likely to experience violence in their lifetimes than the national average. The Washington State Patrol recently acknowledged the urgent need for resources and appointed Dawn Pullin as the tribal liaison for Eastern Washington. “I just felt I could bring justice and value to the system. I wanted to be a part of the process and solution if possible,” Dawn said about taking on a position that is the first of its kind. Dawn is hopeful as the tribal liaison that she can directly address the long history of mistrust between the local tribes and law enforcement.
The mainstream media has contributed to this history; Missing Murdered Indigenous Women cases receive less coverage in the news. The victims are often labeled or associated with drug use. This continued stigmatization impacts tribal communities, alongside the biased reporting that offers the general population an excuse to care less. The community cannot be expected to care about our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women if they are not provided any relatable information. “She loved music, she loved to draw, she would have never left her son, she brought happiness to our family,” Mary Stilson says, remembering her niece Margaret Cordova. “She was a stunningly beautiful woman, who walked her talk,” Nateldella King said when sharing about her friendship with Misty Hirsh. Effective change begins by steering the focus onto the victims that lost their lives, not the violent crime and history of the criminal. By raising the standards of reporting about these cases, the mainstream media can become a part of the solution and a trusted resource to raise awareness.
The Red Skirt Society, Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Coalition, River Warrior Society, and Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) have joined forces to create an MMIW March that will start at 6 p.m. May 5 at the Tribal Gathering Place and end at the Pavilion. The Volunteers of America is hosting an MMIW training at 1:30 p.m. May 5, facilitated by King. The Zoom link will be open to the public and posted on the (VOA) Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho Facebook page. Native-owned business The Modern Tipi will have a display to raise awareness for the month of May. Right now is the time to stand in solidarity with our Native American women, show up for the ones we have already lost, and support the resources that provide prevention.
Donell Barlow is an enrolled member of the Ottawa tribe/Otter Clan.
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