“It’s a dark topic and a dark history,” Carolyn DeFord said at her forum called “Let’s Talk About The Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and People Crisis.”
A mother, grandmother and a member of the Puyallup Tribe, DeFord is an advocate and a founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA (MMIW USA), as well as a board member for the Inter-tribal Coalition Against Violence, Washington Against Sex Trafficking, and the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP) Task Force.
As part of the city of Kent’s Equity and Inclusion Speaker Series, DeFord spoke at the Green River College Kent Campus on Nov. 10. During her forum, DeFord talked about the two women in her family who inspire her work — her cousin Lenore and her mother Leona — as they are missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Lenore was murdered, having been shot in the back after trying to intervene in a domestic violence incident, doing what DeFord said the women in her family always did, “helping someone and standing up for what’s right.”
Leona went missing in La Grande, Oregon, after telling a friend that she was going to the store to meet a man named John. Lenore was supposed to meet the friend after talking with John, but she never arrived. Leona has been missing since Oct. 25, 1999.
“That’s what has led me down this path, where it’s led me into domestic violence work, which opened the door to understanding and seeing the connection between human trafficking in my life and the lives of many of my friends,” DeFord said, “as well as the intersection between domestic violence, human trafficking and our people going missing and murdered.”
DeFord spoke about ambiguous loss and complicated grief that comes with losing a loved one in a way that is unresolved. She talked about it being the loss one feels when someone is physically present, but psychologically absent, like someone who has dementia or an addiction, or when someone is physically absent, but psychologically present, like a missing person.
“It’s just, without rituals,” she said. “When someone goes missing, without that ritual, without a ceremony or a funeral, we don’t get to have that time to honor them, to send them off, to lay them to rest and have closure around that.”
DeFord also talked about the staggering numbers surrounding this crisis. She cited FBI reports that said there were 5,205 Indigenous women reported missing in 2021, along with a report from the National Institute of Justice, which said that 84.3% of Indigenous women have experienced violence in their lifetime, 56% have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and almost 50% have experienced stalking in their lifetime.
She spoke about there being over 9,000 missing Indigenous people in the United States, half of which are children. And for every missing person, there are approximately 12 people who are directly affected by their physical absence.
DeFord spoke in length about how far-reaching the crisis is and how family members to those who are missing often take on new familial roles — how grandmothers often take in grandchildren and aunts take in nieces and nephews, for example, without additional income or legal assistance to provide medical care or school enrollment.
“That’s a weird place to be,” DeFord said. “Your identity changes, your familial role changes and you have to try and accept that quickly, because the world doesn’t stop for you to get your feet back underneath you. This experience causes a lot of trauma.”
According to the Census Bureau, Washington state’s Indigenous population (categorized as “American Indian and Alaska Native alone”) is only 2% of the state’s overall population. Despite such a small percentage, the number of missing Indigenous adults and children is so high that the Washington State Patrol has a special Missing Indigenous Persons list that is updated each month.
As of Nov. 14, there are currently 129 missing Indigenous people in Washington state, which is a 3% decrease from an earlier report from Oct. 31, with 26 people being found within those two weeks.
According to the latest report, 11 Indigenous people — all of whom are juveniles — have gone missing in just the first two weeks of November.
However, as DeFord said in the forum, the data isn’t perfect. She talked about Alyssa McLemore, a 21-year-old woman who went missing in Kent on April 9, 2009, saying that due to federal, state and tribal institutions not taking comprehensive data — and because many agencies across the nations aren’t required to record Indigenous or Native American as a race — McLemore was reported as Pacific Islander in one report and African American in another. It wasn’t until McLemore’s family advocated for her that the data was corrected.
“The data challenges is one of the problems,” DeFord said. “We’ve all heard that there’s no accurate data or the data is wrong, incorrect.”
What has led to this crisis, DeFord said, is the federal policies of the past. DeFord specifically talked about the 1885 Major Crimes Act, Indigenous children being forced into boarding schools, the Allotment Act (or Dawes Act), Public Law 280 in 1953, the Termination Act, the 1956 Allocation Act and the Oliphant Decision in 1978, which “stripped tribes of criminal jurisdiction over non-natives on Indian land.”
As far as how the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement has come in Washington state, DeFord sat down for an interview with another media outlet before the forum, saying that Washington legislation passing the Missing Indigenous Person Alert System (MIPA) in early 2022 has helped “make a difference.”
“We’ve already been able to recover people, bring folks home, get the word out in a timely manner where we have never been able to do that before, so it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” DeFord said in the interview. She also talked about the community needed to “take some time to learn about domestic violence and human trafficking, how to identify them and what to do if we see them as bystanders.”