The last time Ernestine Morning Owl spoke with her younger sister, Mavis Nelson, was in April, she said.
For two months, she had no idea anything was wrong with Nelson, 56, assuming she was busy with her job at the front desk of a rehab center in Seattle.
But in June, one of Nelson’s children called Morning Owl, who lives in Oregon near the Washington border, to say Seattle police had identified human remains in a ravine as belonging to his mother. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled her death a homicide and said she suffered multiple punch wounds.
“It was devastating,” Morning Owl said, “because, first of all, I didn’t even know she was missing.”
As the police continue their investigation, family and friends of Nelson, who was a tribal member of the Yakama Nation, are speaking out publicly in an effort to bring his killer to justice.
But they wonder why there doesn’t seem to be a sustained urgency in Nelson’s case or awareness about it in a state that launched the nation’s first alert system for missing Indigenous peoples and summoned a statewide task force on the issue plaguing Native American communities.
Roxanne White, a friend of Nelson’s and founder of a grassroots group in Washington state that advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, said Nelson’s death began to draw attention this week, but only because his friends and family spoke out, not because of law enforcement.
“Hopefully someone will come back to this timeline and someone will remember something,” White said. “All this wasted time is crucial. We need to put these pieces of the puzzle together to be able to end this. His family needs to see whoever did this get caught.”
Authorities have not said when Nelson was first reported missing, although Morning Owl believes Nelson’s co-workers would at least have done so because “she never missed work”. Police released information about the case on June 21, a day after Nelson’s body was found, but did not provide his name.
In an email Friday, Seattle police said the department “does not release the names of crime victims,” but they can be provided by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Nelson’s family and friends say they have lingering questions, including how long his body may have been outside, and are unsure whether police are any closer to identifying a suspect. White said that by not releasing her friend’s name, investigators could lose valuable leads.
“It’s extremely backward,” White said. “You would think their protocol would be to ask for help.”
White said she met Nelson when they lived on the Yakama Reservation about a decade ago and became friends. White had been through some personal issues, and Nelson gave him a hot meal and a place to rest.
“She was a beautiful person and I’ve never forgotten how nice she was to me,” said White, who hasn’t seen Nelson in years and was surprised to learn in June from a former of the tribe that she had been killed. “In a situation like the one that happened with Mavis, it was a really sad thing that even I, as a grassroots defender, had heard that she was missing until she be found murdered.”
Washington’s Indigenous Missing Person Alert was issued in July, about two months after Governor Jay Inslee signed it into law. The program is similar to Amber or Silver Alerts, in which information about a missing Indigenous person is distributed to the public via text message and posted on electronic road signs.
Two alerts have been issued since the program launched, including one last week in which a person was located within 24 hours.
While not all cases of missing Indigenous people can benefit from the alert system, its proponents say such incidents should be reported as soon and as often as possible.
Abigail Echo-Hawk, executive vice president of the Seattle Indian Health Board and a citizen of the Pawnee Nation, said the problem is particularly acute in Washington, where the rate of missing Native American and Alaska Native women is about four times higher. higher than that of white women, according to research she helped collect in 2019. Native Americans make up just 2% of the state’s population.
Echo-Hawk said law enforcement has never been able to accurately collect racial and ethnic data and continues to misclassify Indigenous peoples. And when indigenous peoples are identified, she added, they do not always receive the same treatment from the authorities.
“We know that whether it’s a rural or urban police department, we have an incredible implicit bias toward our people who go missing and are murdered,” Echo-Hawk said. “They are subject to implicit stereotypes, being asked if they were runaways, drug addicts or sex workers. They automatically assume that we did something we deserved for this to happen to us.”
The Washington State Patrol has been tracking about 132 active missing Native cases this week and said it will only release a poster with a person’s photo when the family or lead agency in charge of the law enforcement would require it.
Echo-Hawk said she often encounters family members who receive little or no information about their loved ones’ cases, leaving them to gather their own advice.
“It creates even more mistrust between the community and law enforcement,” she added.
But a statewide task force convened to address the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous people suggested in a report this week that a cold case unit be created within the office of the attorney general of the state. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would seek legislation to create such a team.
Echo-Hawk, a member of the task force, said the Cold Case Unit could be another resource for family members to “at least know someone is asking about an investigation, and pressure is exerted on the forces of order to solve these cases”.
For Morning Owl, his priority is to retrace his sister’s last days and understand why someone would have wanted to hurt her. She said Nelson lived alone in a studio apartment, had been separated from her husband for a few years, and was trying to help out their other siblings in the Seattle area.
Family members called Nelson “Boots” because as a girl she loved dancing to Nancy Sinatra’s song, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.”
“She was the kind of person who didn’t like to bother anyone,” Morning Owl said. “She just led her life on her own.”
Nelson’s body was found less than a mile from where she lived in the University of Washington campus area. His family have not yet been able to arrange a burial, Morning Owl said, because the coroner still has his body pending inquest.
“I’m okay with that,” Morning Owl added. “Right now, I feel like she’s speaking through me, and I can be her voice.”