Stolen Sisters: an indigenous tragedy
Indigenous tragedy propels Washington state representative and Clark alumna to champion two bills
By Claire Sykes
For almost a decade, hundreds of red dresses have been hung on college campuses and outside state capitols, from freeway overpasses and in front yards, all over the United States and Canada. Gina Mosbrucker can’t get the images of them out of her head.
The dresses symbolize and spotlight the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). As Washington State Representative for the 14th Legislative District, Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, and a 1988 Clark alumna, is doing her part to help find them—starting with two state House bills she cosponsored with Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in April.
The National Crime Information Center states that in 2016 there were 5,712 reports of missing Native American and Alaska Native women and girls in the nation. But only 116 of them entered were in the U.S. Department of Justice’s database for missing persons—called NamUs—reports the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI).
Though 71% of this population live in urban areas, the UIHI identified a mere 506 cases in 71 U.S. cities out of about 35,000 cities.
Many more MMIWG cases are never reported. Murder is the third-leading cause of death for Native American and Alaska Native women. Compared to the national average, rates of violence can be 10 times higher on reservations.
As recent as 2018, Mosbrucker didn’t know so many indigenous women were missing and/or murdered.
“Across the country, this is the case for most people, sadly,” she said.
In January that year, a high school friend called Mosbrucker while applying for membership to her own Oregon tribe. The friend had learned about the missing and/or murdered women.
“You have to fix this,” she urged Mosbrucker of the crisis.
Coincidentally, soon after that, Mosbrucker rented the 2017 movie “Wind River,” without knowing that it’s about a murdered Native American woman. At the end, it states there are no missing-person statistics for that demographic, unlike others.
A few days later, loud drumming and singing drew her into the Capitol rotunda in Olympia, where about 100 tribal members and activists had gathered for the eighth annual Native American Indian Lobby Day. Many in full regalia, they held up a huge, deer-fence banner with the words, “Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women Washington #mmiww.”
“After these three ‘signs’, I thought, ‘I’m called to do this,’” Mosbrucker said.
That evening, she met Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, and co-founder and director of MMIWW.
“She came into my office with this willow stick wrapped back around on itself, maybe seven feet tall, with all these red rags tied to it,” Mosbrucker said. There was one for each person missing from her tribe.
“Our tribe had been coming to the state Capitol for decades to address our missing and murdered members, asking legislators, and anyone who’d listen, for help,” said Sovereign.
Her friend, Lisa Jackson, was murdered in 2017 and another, Eveona Cortez, the next year. Sovereign herself was kidnapped in 1992 at age 14 from a party in Portland, where she lived with her family. Over the next few days, she was raped, taken from house to house to motel, and locked in a room where she overheard men talking about selling her to sex traffickers in Hawaii. Luckily, a friend discovered where she was and she was returned home.
“I’m a spiritual person and so is Gina. I try to live by the spirit and so does she,” said Sovereign. “Also, she’s done a lot of work in legislation when it comes to women and children. I know that whatever work she’s doing comes from a good heart.”
From September to December 2018, Mosbrucker and others from the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs (GOIA) and the Washington State Patrol (WSP) visited eight cities across the state. “We wanted to make sure we were listening to the tribes or anyone that wanted to tell their heartbreaking story,” said Mosbrucker. “The most impactful moment was with the Yakama Nation [in Toppenish]. There were literally over 300 members. It must’ve been over four hours of just testimony.”
Mosbrucker learned that many indigenous people don’t report their missing loved ones for fear of being discounted. Everywhere in the U.S., jurisdictional limitations and overlap among tribal and non-tribal law enforcement often stonewall cases. Sovereign and others believe that, oftentimes, crimes committed on or off the reservation have “a lot to do with racism, and the negative stereotypes that objectify Native American women,” she said.
Mosbrucker was on a mission. “There was no model bill we could copy, so we created it,” she said. Introduced Jan. 29, 2018, and effective March 15 that year, HB 2951 required the WSP to conduct a study of ways to increase reporting and identifying missing indigenous women. The study’s results, released June 3, 2019, reveal that there are 1,802 missing persons in Washington state, 56 of them Native American women. “Ours is the first state in the nation to get that evidence-based number, lower than the reality because of under-reporting,” said Mosbrucker. “It shows how it must be a priority for the state to put more resources toward finding missing indigenous women.”
She didn’t want to wait for the results before she and Rep. Mia Gregerson started on the second bill. With HB 1713, introduced Jan. 25, 2019, and effective July 28, 2019, two WSP liaison positions will be created to reach out to native communities to do the work, together, to search for women and girls. The WSP will also develop protocol for the law-enforcement response to reports of all missing indigenous people, not just females, and receive training from the GOIA.
Since taking office in January 2015, Mosbrucker has introduced 48 state House bills, many co-authored with a Democratic representative. Recent ones have focused on domestic violence, untested rape-test kits, animal blood fighting and teen suicide. How does she handle the horror of these?
“I think it’s bigger than me, honestly, and I’m called to do it. It’s difficult work, but I ‘chase’ waterfalls for a pastime, and I ride horses and try to just find peaceful moments,” she said.
Mosbrucker was born in 1963 in Tacoma, Wash., at McChord Air Force Base. She grew up around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Early on, her father told her, “When you see a problem, you become part of the solution.” So when her grandfather in Goldendale got sick, the family moved there to help him and her grandmother. With few jobs in this small town, her parents started one successful company after another.
At 16, Mosbrucker opened her own performing arts studio for kids, teaching tap and ballet. Over time, she added jazz, hip-hop and modern dance, and gymnastics and cheerleading. The business, Touch of Class, is still going, with the majority of the students on scholarship. For 40 years, she’s owned and operated businesses in Goldendale, including Quality Inn & Suites hotel, of which she is the CEO and general manager.
“I’m tenacious, a chronic over-achiever usually to my own demise, coming from a family of being driven,” said Mosbrucker. “And I had many people in my life that said, ‘There’s no limit.’”
One of them was a counselor at Clark. “She told me, ‘You can do anything you want.’ I loved community college because you’re able to connect one-on-one with the professors. The classes are smaller and the schedule is flexible,” said Mosbrucker, then a single mother of a 7-year-old daughter.
“You’re able to have them know about your life and they’re happy to share theirs. They inspire you to figure out what you love. At Clark, it was all about, How do you take what we’re teaching you and inject it into your passion, and make the world a better place? If you’re a cook, then be the best cook. If you’re a dental hygienist, be the best dental hygienist.”
Mosbrucker was determined to be the best lawyer, encouraged by her political science instructor at Clark. After earning a bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of Washington, she went to Concord University School of Law in Los Angeles.
“I decided partway through, ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to do something bigger than sit in an office and try cases. I want to make the laws that surround them. I want to make sure that I can change the world,’” she said.
When she first became a state representative, Mosbrucker focused on changing government regulations to better help businesses create jobs and keep employees. This still matters to her. Whatever the issue, “I want to provide places in communities that teach how to give back to those communities.”
To keep learning that herself, in 2018 she earned the Senior Executives in State and Local Government certification from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Break the silence
Mosbrucker has no idea about her next legislative bill. “And I love that. It’s completely driven by the people that I serve.”
Meanwhile, since HB 2951 and HB 1713, nine states have passed similar legislation. And aspects of both bills have informed a federal bill called Savanna’s Act, introduced in 2017 when Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old pregnant woman and member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, was killed in Fargo, N.D. Stalled in committee, passed in the Senate in December 2018 and held in the House, the bill was reintroduced a month later.
Progress like this keeps Mosbrucker motivated about the MMIWG crisis. So do two news media photographs, along with those of the empty red dresses. In one example, 18-year-old state track and field champion Rosalie Fish, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in Washington, is racing with a red-painted handprint across her mouth and “MMIW” down her leg. Then there’s the photo of a girl holding a sign that reads, “Am I next?”
The question begs another: What can people do to help? Mosbrucker said, “Break the silence. Care about the issue, pay attention to it and talk about it with others.”
And support the efforts of organizations such as MMIWW and MMIW USA. Speaking of HB 2951 and HB 1713, Mosbrucker said, “Neither of these bills is a win to me, until we find a missing family member.”
Claire Sykes is a Portland, Oregon-based writer whose articles appear in Philanthropy, Ruralite, Communication Arts, Chamber Music Magazine and many alumni publications including Western Washington University’s Window and Washington State Magazine, among others. Visit www.sykeswrites.com.