Misty Upham’s Father Writes about Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women

Misty Upham promoting “August: Osage County”

Guest Commentary

Published October 6, 2019

Editor’s Note: Misty Upham was an American Indian actress who disappeared into the night five ago. Yesterday was the fifth annivesary of her death at 32.  Her father, Charle Upham, wrote this tribute to his daughter that addresses missing and murdered Indigenous women. Up

October 5th, 2019 marks five years since Misty left us. In her absence we have continued to pursue the answers to questions that were left behind. Many groups have evolved over the years including: MMIW, No More Stolen Sisters, Futures Without Violence and Sisters in Spirit just to name a few. These movements were created to address the issue of violence against Native and Indigenous people and their voices have raised awareness to the growing problems that many families are faced with in their struggle for justice. Because of this awareness several initiatives have been implemented such as:
• Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and Girls
• National Day of Awareness for MMIW&G
• House of Representatives Bill 1585
• Arizona State House Bill 2570
• Washington State House Bill 2951
• Savannah’s Act
Most initiatives start out as a study by a select committee to determine the barriers such as: data collection, sharing data and solutions that allow government resources to apply to Native communities. Sound great! But has this political approach been effective? My initial thoughts bring to mind the phrase: BIG SMOKE, NO FIRE. Don’t judge me for being skeptical because I come from a culture that lives with a 500-year history of over 500 broken treaties. Why wouldn’t I ask questions?  The truth is politicians have been notorious for making promises that they do not intend to keep or cannot accomplish throughout the political spectrum. Political tactics from the past have included campaigning with a big cheesy smile, promising a better tomorrow while kissing babies in front of the camera. This could be the tribal councilperson that promises to improve tribal government to President Trump who pledges to Make America Great Again. In my opinion I feel that many of these approaches are dealing the effects of a greater problem rather than finding solutions to the root of the matter.
Remember the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) that was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994. This single act, which has been reauthorized by every Presidential Administration except the current one, has provided 1.6 billion dollars annually to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. You would think that after 25 years and billions of dollars that this growing problem would have been eliminated by now. But it hasn’t stopped Harvey Weinstein from using his position of power to take advantage of vulnerable women nor has it addressed the disparity of violent crimes against Native peoples or how their cases are mishandled. Maybe these efforts are not meant include the “merciless Indian savage” or the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Red flags are raised in my camp. Why does it take a special initiative to grant human, civil rights and government services to Indigenous people that are afforded to every other American without question? One possible answer could be attributed to the facts that Institutional racism is perpetuated by systemic discrimination and a people govern Indigenous people that do not share the same cultural values. America has a proven track record of marginalization and discrimination of its indigenous children. No amount of money, resources or training will fix this problem. But this does not stop someone who wants to kiss the baby. In Washington State, where I reside, HB 2951 was passed to address the local issue of missing and murdered indigenous people. This is how I feel that the closed-door political conversation unfolded.
“Wow! This missing and murdered indigenous issue is really gaining ground. We’re starting to look bad because we have been turning a blind eye and elections are just around the corner. We need to make a public statement that we really care. Let’s throw these redskins a bone and offer to draft an initiative that will make them think that we’ve got their backs. It doesn’t have to be effective but it just has to look good on paper. This way they can’t say that we didn’t do them any favors. Maybe then they will go away!”
I have no resentment to all the red brothers and sisters who have waged a tireless campaign to make a difference. Your efforts should be applauded but don’t trust a document or handshake from politicians. This is how trail of broken treaties was started.
To be effective, any system of protocol must have a series of checks and balances.
• Just as the Washington State House Committee was selected to draft an initiative to order a study to determine how to increase reporting and investigation of missing and murdered Native American Women in Washington State, an over site committee should be put in place to make sure that all of the measures enacted and funding allocations are being adhered to on every level.
• These measures should be mandatory so that local city government, police and emergency services are not exempt from compliance.
• Consequences should in place for any state, city, agency or individual who refuses to comply, in the form of punitive damages awarded to affected families. Nothing provides motivation better than the phrase “Show Me The Money”.
• Any State employee or elected official caught in defiance of these mandates should be removed from their elected office or they’re position immediately and forever barred from taking state or local government appointment.
• Communication is essential to keep families and government-to-government agencies informed of case management. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to get information from an agency that refuses to inform family members or share information with other agencies that could aid in solving crimes or disappearances.
• These measures should be retroactive and applied all current and past cases of missing and murdered indigenous people that were closed and or unresolved.
Now imagine this type of case management for all federally recognized tribes nationwide. Could happen! To start with all federally recognized tribes are a fiduciary responsibility of the United States Government with a high standard duty of care. Under treaty agreements the federal government has a duty to enforce, not only, protection by the law but also protection from the law including legal assistance. Under the law tribal members are viewed as wards to their guardian. (Guardian being the U.S. government) The tribal status of “Ward” entitles tribes to sue officers of the United States when that standard of care is violated. In addition, because they are federal wards, tribes may seek United States assistance in litigating against states or private parties.
So how did we get to this place? Missing and murdered Indigenous people and nobody seems to care. Well remember that group of kids in school who were labeled the mean girls, the boys who were bullies. These kids were just not happy unless they were making life miserable for all the other kids whom they chose to victimize. By virtue of their own egos they determined that they were better than everyone else in their social sphere and thereby obligated to remind their insignificants of their position in life. They were not born with these character flaws. This behavior was taught to them by their environmental influences as normal, healthy social interaction. Well all those kids grew up and took their baggage with them into the work place. Many of them wear badges and carry guns. Some are elected to office in local, state and federal government agencies. So why wouldn’t this thing go off the rails at some point?
The way I see it the ratification of House Bills and other initiatives would not be necessary if people in power followed the current law. But that day has not arrived yet. So whom do you start with? Every time someone goes missing or is murdered, you call the police. Then a police report is made and case file is opened. What happens next is anybody’s guess because there are no existing protocols to ensure that the police will apply appropriate measures. This is why House Bills and other initiatives are necessary because the term “Duty of Care” was vague and ambiguous. This responsibility is laid at the feet of local law enforcement. But accountability lies at the door of every governing body and every individual who is a representative of this matrix.
I realize that many non-Native individuals including politicians are sincere in their efforts to make a difference. Their journey has given them insight into the plight of the Red Man. But there is much more work to be done. I stand with all the Native families that have missing and murdered loved ones who have become invisible in our society. Many have told me that I am wrong, it is all in my head and that we have a system of law and order that really works for all. But I am more convinced by the ashes that fill the urn on our family mantelpiece that used to be my daughter.
Always Loved, Never forgotten
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Charles Upham is the father of Misty Upham.

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