Misty Anne Upham (1982 – 2014)
AUBURN, WASHINGTON – I started working as a clinical psychologist on the Muckleshoot Reservation Auburn, Washington in June 1984, a long time ago. Those three decades ago, there was little traffic coming off SR167 and onto Highway 18, turning on to SR 164. In those years, when I exited the freeway onto Auburn Way S, there were fields around the highway exit. Driving up the hill onto the Muckleshoot reservation, huge fields and pastures lined the road. In June, the south side of the road had several fireworks booths. On the north side of the road, a small bingo hall sat. Further down the road going towards the small town of Enumclaw, woods lined the way. It was easy to tell, on any Monday morning, who had spent Sunday night with whom; who had broken up with whom; who had had a family celebration over the weekend; and who had been successful in their fishing endeavors.
Sunday, October 19, 2014, with a heavy heart, I came down a very crowded road and turned off the same highway, this time facing a slew of fast food outlets, a Thai Restaurant, and a used car lot. Further up the hill, today, to the south of the road is an enormous bingo hall and to the north was the 340,000 square foot Muckleshoot Casino, advertised as “Biggest and Best in the Northwest.” The parking lot of the casino was full, as was the parking lot to the “Cash America” pawn and check cashing office across the road.
I thought of other times I drove that road with an equally heavy heart, knowing that when I reached my office I would be driving right back out to sit with a family who had just lost a grandmother, an uncle, a child, or a friend. Way too often, it would be trying to make sense of a young man who choose death because life, in that time and space was just too hard, too confusing, or too painful without the smoothing and soothing taste of alcohol. But today, today, I was going to the vigil of a beautiful, smiling, shining eyed 32 year old woman who suffered from mental health concerns, and who disappeared on October 5, 2014, her body not being found until October 16, 2014, eleven days later and only a few blocks from her home.
Misty Ann Upham, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe, was the star of the day, this time a star in a vigil honoring her life instead of her walking down the red carpet of her upcoming movie “Cake.” Misty Upham was born on July 6, 1982 in Kalispell, Montana to Mona and Charles Upham. The family moved to the Muckleshoot Reservation south of Seattle when Misty was young. She first sought involvement in theater the 1990’s. At that time, she began participating in plays and presentations at Red Eagle Soaring Theatrical troop.
Before long, she had moved to Southern California and was able to acquire parts in movies including August, Osage County; Django Unchanged; Frozen River; and in the upcoming film, Cake. Over the course of her time in Southern California, Misty was reported to have spoken of the difficulty Native people have in Hollywood and the film world. She received acclaim for her roles and, by all indications she had a bright future ahead of her.
However, Misty fought demons that, sad to say, are all to often part and parcel of living in Indian country. She had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and alcohol abuse. Sadly, when Misty moved back to the Auburn, Washington area she had not yet been able to acquire the level of mental health care she would have needed given the concerns reported by her family and the Auburn Police Department.
Misty Upham promoting “August: Osage County”
Misty spoke of the difficulties of growing up in Indian Country. Too often, this includes difficulties with non-Native near Native communities, strained relations with the local police; and a serious lack of resources for people with mental health problems along with not always adequate training for police to appropriately deal with people struggling with mental health problems. All of these factors appear to be a part of the tragedy of Misty’s death. It is hoped, however, as her father said, that Misty’s death will bring people together to solve these problems.
Misty had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems but had recently been off her medication. According to her father, Charles Upham, Misty’s father, Misty had been involuntary detained due to previous mental health crises and then released. Several of the incidents in the months proceeding Misty’s death appeared to have been very upsetting for her. Mr. Upham indicated Misty had been handcuffed and mocked by the police, creating a fear in her mind of the authorities. The Auburn Police denied any harassment of Misty but did acknowledge she may well have been restrained by handcuffs as part of being detained on an involuntary commitment. Misty had received services on at least one occasion from a local mental health agency but it is unclear if she sought out further help on her own.
Commander Mike Hirman, of the Auburn Police Department provided the information below:
“On the day Misty went missing (October 5, 2014), there had been a report made to the Auburn Police Department who are cross-deputized to provide services on the Muckleshoot Reservation. The police received a call around one pm in the afternoon from the family that “Misty was suicidal and (people) would not have to be worried about her again.” When the police arrived, they looked for any sign of intent that Misty might have committed suicide but found none.”
“Officers from the Auburn Police Department searched the neighborhood for Misty but by this time, it is likely that Misty was already deceased due to a probable fall from a cliff behind the area where she lived. On October 6, 2014, a formal missing person report was filed and assigned to an officer from the Auburn Police Department. The investigation included gathering the names of people Misty knew, where she might have been, contact with the agency where Misty had previously received services, and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services had been contacted to see if Misty had used her EBT card.”
“In addition, Misty’s cell phone number was run. In the following days, Mr. Upham filed a missing person report with the Seattle Police Department. A report had been received that Misty had been seen in Seattle, but this was not accurate.”
One of the concerns expressed by the Upham family was that Misty was not flagged as an endangered missing person. This designation is part of the Revised Code of Washington that is used to identify particularly vulnerable missing persons.
The statute under which the Upham family felt Misty fell is detailed below:
The Washington State Endangered Missing Person Advisory (EMPA) is authorized by RCW 13.60.010 and 13.60.050.) that is initiated by law enforcement agencies using the criteria detailed below:
- The person is missing under either:
- Unexplained, involuntary, or suspicious circumstances; and the person is believed to be in danger because of age, health, mental or physical disability, or is a vulnerable adult, in combination with adverse environment or weather conditions and/or is believed to be unable to return to safety without assistance
- Voluntary circumstances, only if a person, due to mental disability is in danger because of age or health in combination with environment or weather conditions and/or is believed to be unable to return to safety without assistance.
- There is enough descriptive information that could aid in the safe recovery of the missing person:
- For missing person-photo; height; age; hair and eye color; hair length; race; and distinguishing physical characteristics; clothing worn when last seen; vehicle, if any, to include color; make; license number; approximate year (older; newer) location last seen
- For possible subjects/suspects: same descriptive information as above
In a lengthy interview with Commander Hirman of the Auburn Police Department, he explained why Misty was not placed in this category. He said that this designation is often used for people who go missing who may have dementia or another physical or mental health condition that prevents them from finding their way home or from seeking assistance. Auburn Police Department determined that Misty did not fall into one of the categories as described above. Commander Hirman also noted that by the time the missing person report was filed on October 6 in Auburn and two days later in Seattle, Misty was deceased.
Eleven days later, on October 16, 2014, Misty’s body was found by family friends and members down the slope of a cliff behind the neighborhood where she lived. The final autopsy report has not been received from the King County coroner’s office regarding Misty’s death, as they are awaiting the toxicology report. The information provided by Commander Hirman indicated there was no sign of foul play and it is likely she slipped and fell from a slippery and steep path.
Misty’s death, regardless of the cause, is a tragedy of significant proportions in the Native community. She had success in mainstream Hollywood movies and, in her way, became a role model for other young Native people. She struggled with mental health concerns, as is common among Native youth. She is reported to have struggled with substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder, as is all too common in Native communities. But, despite these concerns, Misty stepped forward as a rising and talented young actress.
At the beautiful and peaceful vigil that was held at the corner of Fir and Auburn Way S., on the Muckleshoot Reservation, a short way away from where Misty lived and died on October 19, 2014, Misty’s beauty, love of life, love of family, hope for the future, and desire for her own family were the focus. Martha Brice, one of the board members of Red Eagle Soaring Theatrical troop spoke of Misty’s talent, her commitment to the Native community, and her potential. Misty’s father spoke of her love of life and, also, of Misty’s bright future. Misty’s sister, Amanda, was adamant that Misty had not committed suicide, that she loved life and was looking forward to her future.
It is almost impossible to imagine that pain that Misty’s family must feel knowing that she was so close to them but so far away for so many days. The anguish of the family knowing her struggles and not being able to help her cannot be described. Their frustration at Misty not being found for eleven days must be excruciating. Yet, despite these emotions, they were still able to come forward and advocate for Misty as well as being able to speak of her significant contributions to Indian Country.
Misty’s death, while a terrible loss to her family, community, and Native people at large, is also an opportunity to shine lights on concerns that far too often are minimized or ignored by the world outside of Indian Country:
- The large number of missing Native American and First Nations women
- The significant gaps in mental health services for Native people
- The frustrations and suspicions that are often present between Native communities and local law enforcement
- The need for dual diagnosis (substance abuse and mental health problems) treatment programs in Native communities
- The need to remove the stigma of mental health and substance abuse problems in Native communities; and
- The need to acknowledge the level of trauma in Native communities and move forward on both reducing the sources of trauma in Native communities.
This author was struck, again, for the need for the concerns noted above to be addressed in the light of our ability as Native people to survive, move forward, and to look for our spirituality to move past the tragedies of situations such as Misty’s. In an ironic twist, a nonNative student from the University of Virginia, Hanna Graham, went missing shortly before Misty. Ms. Graham’s death was often a lead in story for the national news. It is hard not to make the comparison of the coverage of Ms. Graham’s disappearance with that of Misty’s. Indian Country, through social media and Native news outlets spoke frequently and with deep concern regarding Misty. Hopefully, such coverage will now be present for the very large number of Native and First Nations women that go missing every year.
As the clouds rolled to and from the sky above Misty’s vigil, the sounds of the drums and songs carried out on the warm fall afternoon. Misty’s beautiful face shone through the flowers, balloons and candles surrounding her photos. It is hoped, as Misty’s sister, Amanda said, that Misty could see how loved she was, how much she will be missed, the grace she brought to her family and Indian Country, and the role model she was.
As I left Misty’s vigil and drove up a very crowded Interstate-5 towards Seattle, the clouds parted over the snow cone of Mount Rainier; known in Indian Country as Tahoma, the mountain that graces the seal of the Muckleshoot Tribe. A stray beam of light bounced up to the sky, creating a rainbow that lasted for a moment and then blinked away. Sometimes, the beauty lasts only a moment before it is gone. But in that moment, in that moment, nothing is more graceful, precious, or lovely that that beam of light.
Misty Ann Upham, her young face, long hair, smiling and sparkling eyes was such a light; brief and then gone. But, in the hearts of her family, friends, and other tribal people who came to pay their respects, Misty is a rainbow whose light will not be forgotten.
 Washington State Endangered Missing Person Advisory Plan, RCW 13.60.010 and 13.60.050
Robin A. Ladue, Ph.D. is a retired clinical psychologist. She is the author of “Totems of September.” She is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington. She is a contributing writer to Native News Online.