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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Keep saying their names’: Coeur d’Alene Casino conference acknowledges Missing and Murdered Indigenous People

WORLEY – Articles of red clothing hung at the front of the stage. Bedazzled and polka-dot dresses with ribbons resting at the shoulders, a crimson spaghetti-strap shirt, a maroon poncho blouse. They belonged to Lenore Lawrence, who was murdered in Dayton, Washington, in 2002, after coming to aid a friend in a domestic violence situation.

The display was part of the Next Steps Conference on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People held Wednesday and Thursday at the Coeur d’Alene Casino. The conference, organized by storyteller Tai Simpson, brought together tribes and non-Native organizations from around the region in a moment of solidarity and to acknowledge a crisis rooted in the after effects of colonialism.

“What is really unique about this space is that there are grassroots organizers in the room, law enforcement in the room, prosecutors, counselors, victim service providers, administrators, policy makers, so unheard of and unprecedented in Idaho to come together behind this energy for missing and murdered relatives,” Simpson said.

A shawl ceremony featured five different colors: a teal shawl for sexual assault survivors, red for MMIP, and rainbow for LGBTQ+ and other marginalized survivors of violence throughout the Indigenous community.

“Throughout the day, I invite you to visit these shawls, to tell these shawls your stories, to share memories … you can treat these as a miniature altar,” Annie Forsman-Adams said.

The room was an all-red affair, the color of violence, yet strength and love. Tables were decorated with red roses in vases covered in a red handprint, the official logo of missing and murdered Indigenous people campaigns. Members of organizations spoke to new initiatives created in the name of restorative justice.

Forsman-Adams is one of the 27 members of the Washington state MMIP Task Force. Since their creation in 2021, the task force is an equity-focused organization looking to dismantle systems that hinder justice for Indigenous families. Their first interim report of findings around missing and murdered Indigenous people will be released in August.

With the help of families whose loved ones have been murdered or gone missing, six subcommittees have helped build legislation, including passing a Washington state bill for an Amber Alert system strictly used for when an Indigenous person is reported missing, set to go live in June.

“We really want to center the experience of families and acknowledge that they are the experts on this and that they hold, in their experiences, knowledges and wisdoms, the solutions to the MMIP Crisis,” Forsman-Adams said. “It’s our job to then look at how those solutions can become meaningful policy change.”

Rafael Gonzalez Jr., the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho, discussed the legal and federal differences when prosecuting cases.

When crimes take place on reservations, they are federal cases, since it is federal land. However, if the crime includes a non-Native person, things can get tricky.

“(Agencies are) looking first if it’s in our jurisdiction so they can take the primary role (of investigation), or is it a case where they serve as support, because there may not be enough evidence that the matter would fall within their jurisdiction, so they take a support role,” Gonzalez said. “We always want to be involved.”

Stressing the importance of collaboration, the conference hosted four breakout sessions around law enforcement, attorneys, tribal leaders and victim advocate organizations. Many speakers cited collaboration and centering the family of victims and survivors as a missing piece of the campaign.

Sabrina DeSautel, director of public safety for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, hosted the discussion around bridging the relationship between agencies and tribes, as many call for cross-deputization of tribal and local police officers so cases are examined sooner. It’s an issue of major importance to Shoshone-Bannock tribal member Cynder Metz, whose son Matthew Jay Broncho went missing in May 2019.

Metz said there have been “jurisdiction issues” in Broncho’s disappearance.

“He’s from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. He went missing and his vehicle was found in the state of Utah, just off the Idaho-Utah border. So my issue is with the state of Utah jurisdiction and the tribes,” Metz said. “Neither one wants to help in his case, so I wanted to listen in about these jurisdictions.”

Puyallup Tribe of Indians member Carolyn DeFord hosted the victim advocacy session. Her mother, Leona Kinsey, went missing in La Grande, Oregon, 22 years ago. DeFord has since created support protocols to help families in their time of grief and uncertainty.

DeFord’s seminar rested on the spiritual and communal Native practices, including families mourning and grieving while participating in triggering events like speaking to the media.

“Get some of those hard feelings out and put them down to be able to move forward with them,” DeFord said. “You’re not giving them up, you’re not letting them go, but you’re not having to carrying them so tightly anymore.”

The tribal leaders session was a detailed conversation among Native women across the Pacific Northwest. Eight women detailed how their personal experiences with death, grief and assault create solutions that center Indigenous families. The open, organic workshop easily recognized common issues among the tribes.

“We share this common interest in our families; all of us have families on every one of these reservations,” Spokane Tribe member Monica Tonasket said. “We’re all interconnected, so it really helps us to get those working relationships and to find solutions for all of us.”

Thursday’s sessions were to include representation from the Innovations Human Trafficking Collaborative, the Idaho State Police Missing Persons Clearinghouse and the Washington state Attorney General’s Office. On Friday, the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission will host a meeting on the topic of murdered and missing Indigenous people that is open to the public.

“We are deeply appreciative of the families who’ve pushed forward the names and keep saying their names and remind us every single day that this work is relentless and tireless, and we all have a responsibility as members of Indigenous communities to take care of each other and to do the best we can to interrupt this violence,” Simpson said.