Misty Upham promoting “August: Osage County”
Exclusive to Native News Online
In aftermath of young Native actress’ death, family seeks resolution
By Charles Upham and Robin Ladue
On October 5, 2014, a beautiful and talented young Native American actress and musician by the name of Misty Upham went missing under mysterious circumstances. Her remains were found eleven days later through the efforts of family and friends. A great deal of the media reporting on Misty has focused on her mental health problems and other life struggles, as well as the family’s concerns that the Auburn Police Department, with all their resources, refused to participate in search-and-rescue efforts to find Misty. While the family continues to deeply mourn Misty’s passing, it is important that her strengths, humor, skills, accomplishments, and love of life are also celebrated.
Mr. Charles Upham, Misty’s father, was gracious enough to speak with this writer for more than six hours over a period of ten days. His one request in speaking up was to ensure that Misty is not simply seen as a tragic figure but as a real person with ambition, hopes and dreams, and as a beautiful human being. Therefore, this article will attempt to fulfill Mr. Upham’s request and show Misty in the light of her gifts.
Misty Anne Upham (1982 – 2014)
Misty and her family were tribal members of the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. She was one of four children born to Charles and Mona Upham. The family spent some time on the Blackfeet Reservation where Mr. Upham taught school and also worked to bring cultural understanding and acceptance instead of racism to the schools that served children of the reservation. Mr. Upham is a musician and an appreciation of the arts was a foundation in the Upham family. Misty was also well versed in her culture and saw the need for positive role models for Native people. Her father spoke of the bullying Misty endured in school and her parents moving her to a private school to end this bullying.
However, as Mr. Upham noted, in many ways this made it easier for Misty to withstand the stresses and pressure she would later deal with in her chosen profession as an actress. When Misty was young, the family moved to the South King County area of Washington State, where Mr. Upham continued to teach music in the public schools and Misty cultivated her interest in the arts. In her late teens, Misty became part of the theater group for Native youth called “Red Eagle Soaring,” in Seattle.
It was through this group that Misty found her passion, which was acting, and talent scouts from the Entertainment community subsequently discovered her. She moved from the stage into the hard-edged world of the Hollywood film industry, beating the odds by being cast in several movies, including August, Osage County, Cake, Expiration Date, Edge of America, Dreamkeeper, Frozen River, Skins, Skinwalkers, and Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.
As Misty’s star began to rise, she struggled with health issues that significantly impacted her life. She had a great deal of anxiety due to a phobia, which increased over time and culminated in mental health problems that, eventually, led to her being involuntarily committed to an emergency room psychiatric evaluation assessment program. Despite these struggles, Misty had a zest for life and a strong desire to continue in her vocation.
There have been many reports surrounding Misty’s death and the long delay before her body was found. According to her father, Misty was afraid of the police due to her allegations of having been mistreated in their care. After returning to Seattle to care for her father, who had suffered a stroke, she struggled with increased anxiety and in Washington State was unable to receive the mental health care and medications she had received in California.
Misty Upham’s death should not be in vain
On October 5, 2014, the day Misty disappeared, she was having what appeared to be a psychotic breakdown and left the family home. They called the Auburn Police Department and reported her missing. One of the options the police could have implemented was having Misty declared as an Endangered Missing Person.
Instead, the Department has stated that Misty did not meet the criteria for this designation and that, ultimately, it would not have made any difference in the outcome of the situation. But this statement is not true. Under the guidelines in the Washington State Endangered Missing Person Advisory Plan (EMPA), law enforcement officials are obligated to initiate a plan that involves several other agencies, including a mandate to be actively involved in the search effort. This is quite different than the un-endangered missing person situation wherein that person is listed as a missing person but no effort is made to actively search for them. The only way they are found is if they are arrested for committing a crime, if they are admitted to emergency services, or if they are a recovered corpse. It was the Upham family’s contention that Misty did in fact meet the criteria outlined in category two of the plan as follows:
- Voluntary circumstances, only if a person, due to mental disability [as defined in RCW 71A.10.020(4)] is in danger because of age or health in combination with adverse environment or weather conditions and/or is believed to be unable to return to safety without assistance.
On October 16, 2014, Misty’s body was found by Robert Upham, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Jeff Bearhand, at the bottom of a ravine near the family home. The coroner ruled the cause of Misty’s death the result of blunt force trauma, which could be consistent with the fall of approximately 150 feet, but the manner of death in still undetermined. Mr. Upham indicated that a witness has come forward to reveal that Misty was at a party with people from the local community and that people at this party killed her and threw her body over the embankment where she was found. The Auburn police spoke with a person who received the call from the witness, but decided that the testimony was not valid.
The Auburn Police Department has been adamant that they did “all they could” to find Misty. They have closed the investigation into her unresolved death, as they maintain there is no concrete evidence to support the family’s concerns. The family then requested a Federal Investigation to reopen Misty’s case but to date that has not occurred. The Upham family is launching their own Independent Investigation to find justice for Misty and to find resolution to her disappearance and death.
The point of this article, however, is to look at what Misty gave to the community in both her life and after her passing. One of the concerns that cannot be ignored in the eleven days that Misty was missing is that she became, for a short time, another one of thousands of missing indigenous women whose disappearances were never investigated by law enforcement officials. Sadly, her case echoed a frustrated family who believes that the police could have and should have listened to the family and implemented the search through the Washington State Endangered Missing Person’s Advisory Plan (EMPA), which provides for more accountability, coordination, and reporting across agencies.
Misty clearly fell through the cracks of the mental health system, preventing her from getting appropriate medication and making her even more vulnerable.
If there were any lessons to be learned from Misty’s death, it would be the following:
- Families know best in terms of their children and what their children, even as adults, are likely to do.
- The designation of the Endangered Missing Person should be used when there are known mental health concerns and when there have been multiple involuntary hospitalizations.
- Community mental health agencies need to act more quickly to provide services, particularly when a psychiatrist or mental health professional is needed.
- The police should be more professional and responsive to the family and maintain proper communication.
- The Native community and the police department need to develop closer ties, and ensure that all avenues of communication are open and used. In terms of Misty’s life, there are more positives than any of the negatives detailed above.
- The strengths that are inherent in Native families such as the Uphams.
- Children can achieve and do wonderful and amazing things when they are raised in a positive, loving, close, and supportive family, as was the case with the Uphams.
- Misty demonstrated success in a field that does not commonly value people of color and that has a history of denigrating Native people.
- Misty, despite her struggles, was strong, determined, and positive, maintaining her hopes and attempting to achieve her goals no matter what.
Misty achieved two of her most important goals, according to her father: going to Europe and being in a film with Meryl Streep (August, Osage County). Misty anchored herself in her Native values, faith, and family and is a strong role model for young Native people and their families.
Misty’s vision was to be the voice for the voiceless and to bring awareness to issues that needed to be addressed. Her involvement and support in national organizations such as Indigenous Workers Rights, PETA, Women of the World, LGBT Community, as well as “Indigo Children,” demonstrated her own contributions to the entertainment community and provided direction for struggling actors with resources so they could achieve their dreams. Misty never gave up, no matter how hard life got.
There are several aspects of this situation that are tragic: Misty’s death and the loss of her presence in her family, the Native community, and the community-at-large. It is even more tragic that, as close as Misty was to her home when she was found, eleven days elapsed before her body was found. Misty’s family suffered greatly during those eleven days, knowing that her being gone was not typical of Misty and feeling like those in positions of authority and power would not take their concerns seriously. The helplessness of the family could only be described as excruciating. But the real tragedy is that her death could have been prevented on many levels.
One of the aspects of the Native world that often is not understood or appreciated is that Indian Country, while it stretches from coast to coast and north to south, is small. People know each other. People know the struggles Misty experienced and the frustration of her family. People know the stories of the missing indigenous women who, according to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, “are not on the radar.”
What cruel and dismissive words to use for women such as Misty who are lost to the family. In spite of the tragic aspects of Misty’s death, her family has forged ahead to gain recognition and justice for their daughter. While there will never be any true resolution for Misty’s loss, her father and her other family members have resolved to fight for Misty, to understand her last hours and what happened to her, and to make sure that her wonderful legacy of joy, love or life, talent and perseverance will not be lost to time. Misty deserves nothing less.
Please support the “Find Justice for Misty” campaign. Your donations will help raise money for costs associated with the family’s independent investigation and a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for her death.
Charles and Mona Upham are the parents of the Native Actress Misty Anne Upham. Both parents are members of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana. In 1992, after earning his degree in Music Education, Charles moved his family, including Amanda, Misty and Chris from Montana to the Seattle area in search of an environment more conducive to opportunity. After 16 years in public education Charles left the teaching profession to focus on talent management and media production. In 2006 the entire family moved to Los Angeles to pursue careers in the entertainment industry. Amanda became a professional makeup artist, Misty became and actress and Chris a screenwriter and musician. After suffering a debilitating stroke in 2013, Charles and his family returned to the Seattle area for health and recovery. Charles and Mona plan to share Misty’s story of success and achievement with the world.
Robin Ladue, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist who lives in a small town on the eastern flanks of the Cascade Mountains. She is the author of the award winning “Journey Through the Healing Circle” books and videos. Her novel of historical fiction, Totems of September, is available on Amazon.com or Septembertotems.com. Dr. Ladue is a contributing writer for Native News Online.
Editor’s Note: Robin would like to share her deep gratitude and appreciation to Mr. Upham for his hours of interviews and participation in the writing of this article.