Warning: Violence, discussion of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People
One of the things that Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot values most about living close to the land on her reservation in White Swan, Wash., is the quiet.
“I grew up having a lot of quiet time to myself,” Patsy said. “I find I cherish those moments when I get that space to think, to meditate and reflect in that space.”
That mindset is something Whitefoot teaches her own children and grandchildren, as well as the kids she works with as an educator. She shares how important it is to teach children how to calm themselves, how to breathe through difficult emotions, how to appreciate quiet time.
Heralded as an Indigenous activist and professional educator, Whitefoot is best known for her work on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP). She has spoken about the issue for many years and has worked tirelessly to bring awareness to MMIP on the national front. She is co-host of the War Cry podcast, which covers the movement to address MMIP and profiles specific cases.
The Yakama elder speaks with the authority of someone who has spent long hours advocating for her people in high-profile arenas. She also speaks with gentleness when she talks about her family, especially her grandchildren, and the youth she works with.
Dedicating much of her life to bringing awareness
In 1987, Whitefoot’s younger sister, Daisy May Heath, disappeared at the age of 29. Patsy and her family filed a missing person’s report, and an investigation ensued. However, it took several years for the police to find a body and determine her death was a homicide.
“We don’t really know what happened,” Whitefoot said. “Based on the location of where parts of her were located, it was in a closed area of our reservation. It wasn’t very far from our home because we lived in White Swan. Other women [on the reservation] have experienced similar situations.”
According to a 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, Washington is the state with the second-highest number of cases of missing or murdered Native persons in the country. As of early January, there are currently 129 missing Indigenous people in the state, and a majority of those cases come from Yakima county, according to a list made publicly available by the Washington State Patrol. Due to the high prevalence of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law House Bill 1177 earlier this year, which dedicates more resources to MMIP in the state. The law also established a cold case unit to help address the issue.
Ever since her sister’s disappearance, Whitefoot has dedicated much of her life to bringing awareness to the MMIP movement, speaking on the importance of healing in Native communities, of working against family violence, gang violence and substance abuse on reservations and in urban Native communities.
Murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women. And a 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice found that more than four in five Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime, including more than half who have experienced sexual violence.
Whitefoot says the history of violence brought to Native communities through colonization, assimilation, termination and boarding schools has deeply affected Native people, and that healing and recovery are essential to change.
“There is a strong movement in Indian country alongside the recovery movement that is very positive—the healing movement,” she said.
In places like White Swan, as with most reservations, it’s easy for people to go missing and not be found. However, with more attention coming to MMIP via the efforts of people like Whitefoot, awareness of the issue is increasing.
‘I’ve carried on this way of life’
Before she became an activist, and before she launched her own teaching career, Whitefoot spent time in boarding school with her sisters at the Yakama Indian Mission in White Swan. The school is five miles east of the site of the former military Ft. Simcoe Boarding School, which Whitefoot’s grandmother attended in her early childhood years.
“These institutions were based on militaristic ideology and Christianity tenets
that I found to be manipulative and brain washing of my being as a young Native girl,” Whitefoot said.
Later, Whitefoot had a career in education in the state of Washington and also on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. She created and led educational programs as well as filing various roles such as principal, counselor, superintendent and program director.
She has researched and published two peer-reviewed journals with subjects on HIV and Chlamydia prevention, risks and screening in Indigenous populations, and has served as the Indian Education Director for the Toppenish School District on Yakama Reservation for many years. She has served on tribal council for the Yakama Nation, and was president of the National Indian Education Association for two terms (2008-2011 and 2014-2017).
Whitefoot was appointed by President Obama as a member of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, and she is also a traditional food gatherer for the Toppenish Creek Longhouse.
But most important to her is her family, and the land her tribe has stewarded for generations.
“Country life has an attraction for me because that’s how I grew up: on a ranch, being able to ride my horses and be free,” Whitefoot said. “As a young girl, I could just jump on bareback. Where I live now—the sagebrush, the birds, the animals that come through. It’s not unusual for elk to be around me. It reminds me of my childhood and being by the mountains.”
Born in 1950, Whitefoot grew up on a ranch in the Medicine Valley foothills of the Cascade Mountains in White Swan with her maternal grandparents.
“I grew up in a time when we didn’t have toilets or running water, barely had electricity,” Whitefoot said. “We had to use candles.”
Whitefoot’s grandparents instilled a strong work ethic into her and her five sisters, teaching them that they were an intrinsic part of the natural cycle of life and responsible for the land and the animals on their ranch, including horses and cattle.
The ranch kept Whitefoot and her family busy.
“It was our responsibility to gather firewood and traditional foods,” she said. “The traditional foods of the Yakama include salmon, deer, berries and roots. “We also harvested our own garden.”
Whitefoot’s grandparents spoke Sahaptin and taught their grandchildren how to take instructions using the language. That’s something Whitefoot’s generation has continued to teach the children in their family now.
She used to babysit her grandkids while her son fished at night. Then, she would drive three hours each way to her day job.
“Even when I was working a professional career, I still contributed to continuing that way of life,” Whitefoot said.
To Whitefoot and her family, that’s how important it is that they continue to practice their cultural traditions and ways of life. The Yakama, like many other Columbia River tribes, originally lived off of the food and resources surrounding the river. Historically, they migrated according to the seasons and food resources. Some tribal elders reported migrating as far as north as Canada and as far south as California. During the winter months, many villages settled in the valley, which protected them from the elements. After the snowmelt, it was common for many villages to relocate closer to the Columbia River for fishing.
Although traveling to gather traditional foods near or at the Columbia River (approximately 2.5 hours away from White Swan) takes a lot of time, resources, and planning, it’s worth it to Patsy and her family to be able to continue their cultural and historical traditions.
“During those long car rides or rides to and from school, I like to listen to the news with my grandkids and talk about their responsibilities as young people,” Whitefoot said. “We talk about their bloodlines and what they carry.”
The members of her family have very diverse backgrounds from different tribes, including Yakama, Klickatat, Spokane, Dine, Taitnapam, and Skiin, so they talk about how important it is to know their identities. She helps teach them how to identify themselves as tribal people and learn about their backgrounds.
That commitment paid off during the Covid-19 pandemic. Whitefoot and her family were prepared because they had been living off the land for generations. When everything was shut down, they relied on traditional knowledge—fishing and harvesting—to survive. They not only know how to gather and harvest their food from the land, but also how to preserve those traditional foods by drying, smoking, canning and freezing. They knew when the salmon would come back and the best locations and methods for catching the fish. Whitefoot knew the best places to find berries, roots, and other traditional food staples.
“I’ve carried on this way of life and have taught my children and grandchildren,” Whitefoot said, “remembering the locations so I can show them.”
‘It takes constant education to make change’
Whitefoot believes education is at the core of the solution for MMIP and other challenges affecting Native communities. That’s why her passion for her community has led her to a career in education. Her hope is that by educating the next generation, they will be armed with the tools necessary to make even bigger changes for the better.
“It takes constant education with one another, with non-Native and Native populations, to make change,” she said.
Today, Whitefoot is retired, but she still volunteers on behalf of her community. She serves on the Washington State Attorney General’s MMIP Task Force and helps run the “Little Swans” dance group in White Swan.
“Several years ago, some of the grandmothers came to the realization that the young girls weren’t learning some of the history and purpose of certain songs,” she said. “Dances are significant to our people.”
She and a group of elder women started the dance group to ensure that their cultural dances and regalia would continue on for generations. The grandmothers taught the meanings of the songs and how to sing them and sew the dresses. The Little Swans started getting called upon to perform, and now travel and perform regularly.
Whitefoot’s granddaughter was three when the group started.
“Some of those girls are now in college and pursuing their education,” Whitefoot said. “This has been a blessing and amazing to see these young people evolve into young adults now.”
Lead image: Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot, stands in front of a mural dedicated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples. Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2023 on the Yakama Nation Indian Reservation in Toppenish, Wash. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)