A paper lantern rose gently in the breeze and promptly caught on fire.

The lantern launch happened Sunday evening at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute as part of a national day honoring missing and murdered indigenous women. While the flameout wasn’t exactly what organizers had envisioned, it might be a fitting metaphor for native women who are seemingly disappearing into thin air.

According to National Crime Information Center statistics, there were 5,712 cases of indigenous women or girls vanishing or being murdered in 2016. Only 116 of them appeared in the U.S. Department of Justice database.

“Our women are going missing,” said Kola Shippentower Thompson, who helped organize the lantern launch.

She and others say there is an epidemic of indifference regarding these cases. Native women have a murder rate ten times higher than the national average. No national database tracks them, so the number could actually be much higher.

Thompson, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, has experienced personal loss. An aunt’s death about 30 years ago was ruled a suicide, something that family members considered unclear and underinvestigated. Another aunt and a cousin went missing for a week in 2004 and turned up dead in the back seat of a wrecked car off Old Emigrant Highway. The deaths were attributed to a car accident, but family members fear they were murdered.

A cousin went missing for two weeks in 2015 and was found dead in the Umatilla River.

She knows plenty of others with the same heartbreaking histories and said, “Our community has been struck very hard by grief and pain and loss.”

At the lantern launch and at last month’s Rising To The Challenge summit at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, elder Mildred Quaempts spoke of her mother who died at age 31. Mildred was four.

“They found her badly beaten in an irrigation ditch with no clothes on,” Quaempts said.

Quaempts, who is now 66, said she has wondered her entire life what happened to her mother and who was responsible for her death.

“I don’t know,” Quaempts said. “I’ll probably always have this anger inside me.”

In the summer of 2017, the duct-taped body of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was found in North Dakota’s Red River. The member of the Spirit Lake Nation was eight months pregnant. Her baby, cut from her womb, was found alive five days later. A couple was eventually taken into custody for the crime.

The murder sparked outrage and provided the impetus for a federal bill that combats a rising number of missing or slain native women and girls by increasing the collection of statistics, improving access to data on Native American crime victims and requiring data sharing among law enforcement agencies and with Congress.

“Murder rates against Native women are a shocking ten times more than the national average. That is tragic and unacceptable,” said bill co-sponsor Jeff Merkley in a January news release. “This bipartisan bill finally lays the foundation for getting these women, and Native communities, the justice they deserve.”

The state of Washington signed a similar bill last month. The bill creates liaison positions to coordinate with various law enforcement agencies and develop best practices for handling cases involving tribal victims.

Willa Wallace, who helped organize the lantern launch, traveled to Olympia for the signing of the Washington bill. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill accompanied by tribal drumming.

“It was a powerful moment,” Wallace said.

Similar legislation is taking shape in the Oregon Legislature. House Bill 2625 seeks improvement of investigation and data collection pertaining to cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Thompson said this epidemic pulls at cultural barriers of many tribes that discourage talking about someone who has died. For a year after the memorial, tradition says not even to say the person’s name. Photos are put away, Thompson said. Elders, she said, believe that if the dead are memorialized further, their spirits will continue to wander.

At the walk and lantern launch on Saturday, some of the participants addressed this tradition by wearing red bandanas with white handprints covering their mouths.

“We’re not supposed to talk about the people who have passed,” Thompson said, “but if we don’t talk about them, we don’t know.”

She said the women who died or went missing don’t have a voice any more.

“We are their voices,” she said. “We must tell their stories.”

Just before the ill-fated lantern launch, Thompson recited a poem.

“Stolen sister, stolen mother, stolen grandmother, stolen daughter, stolen cousin, stolen auntie, stolen girl, stolen woman.

We love you.

We miss you.

We will always hold a space in our hearts for you.”

———

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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