‘I just stood my ground like I was taught’
Native American woman advocates to bring awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, People
Fifty-three-year-old Ann Ford can still recall the day she heard Olivia Lone Bear went missing from the Fort Berthold Reservation after Olivia returned home to the North Dakota reservation about fifteen years ago.
Ann, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member with roots in the Colville, Spokane, Flathead, and Cree tribes, had been close to Olivia, who had attended the Wellpinit school on the Spokane Reservation, prompting her to become a fierce advocate in raising awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, People.
“There are cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, men, children all across Indian Country,” Ann says. “It’s frustrating that a lot of things like this are happening in reservations and Native American land, but you never hear about it.”
The MMIP issue continues to affect Indigenous communities—particularly women—across the nation and beyond its borders. Ann says she felt it was time to do more, so she set out to raise awareness wherever she went.
A 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that out of 5,712 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls only 116 had been logged into the Department of Justice’s database. The report also found that regionally, the Pacific Northwest had the third highest number of cases; Washington falls as the state with the second highest number of cases at seventy-one that year.
“Nobody really knows this is happening,” Ann says, “and I really don’t wanna offend anybody, but if it was a white girl that went missing, it would be on the news.”
Ann says her mother taught her to speak her mind and always stand up for what she believes. Although born in Moses Lake, Ann grew up in Othello before she made the move to Spokane around 1979 and is the youngest of nine children.
Ann’s father is Mexican, and while growing up in Othello, she witnessed many students being racist toward Mexican children. Discrimination of any kind never sat right with her. She says she always tried to stand up for others no matter what could result from it.
“I just stood my ground like I was taught,” she says.
Jessica Ford, who is Ann’s thirty-one-year-old daughter, says her mother has always been into advocacy and does a lot of work with suicide prevention, bullying prevention, and mental health awareness as a youth coordinator.
Jessica works as an advocate for safety and wellness with the Nez Perce Tribe and focuses as an elder advocate, mainly working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Nez Perce Tribe has a MMIW task force focusing on how to bring awareness and protect the community.
Native American communities tend to be affected by suicide and drug use at much higher rates. The violence perpetrated against Indigenous people is high.
Jurisdictional issues often prevent tribal officers from prosecuting non-Natives who committed an act of violence or even murdered a Native person. Jessica says she feels perpetrators know this, leaving Indigenous women, in particular, susceptible to violence.
In 2018, the Washington Legislature directed the state patrol to study how to increase resources to increase the reports of missing Native women and increase efforts to identify missing Native women. A house bill requires the state patrol to create partnerships with tribal law enforcement, but the effectiveness of this approach has not been fully assessed.
This year, the Legislature passed Savanna’s Act, which had been stalled for years, and the Not Invisible Act to address the high rates of MMIW in the country.
“My mom works with Olivia’s kids, you know, so I think that really hit home for her, that as Native American women we are targeted, we have the highest rates of murder,” Jessica says. “We go missing and usually nothing’s done about it.”
In 2017, Ann decided to take a trip to Washington, D.C., alongside her daughters, one of whom was heading to the Capitol for job training. What began as a simple trip in which Ann hoped to see as many landmarks as possible and check off visiting D.C. from her bucket list—Ann has seen every state but three—turned into much more.
Ann says she put on her traditional jingle dress, which is a healing medicine dress, made a sign that read, “I Stand with Standing Rock,” and stood on the streets of Washington, D.C., in an attempt to raise awareness about the pipeline and MMIWP, so that people in power can do something about it.
“I wasn’t gonna do it, and my daughter said, ‘Mom, you need to,’ and I always taught my kids to do what was in their heart, so I said ‘You’re right, I planned on doing this, and I’m going to do it.’”
Her presence sparked conversations, and Ann says she was approached by many people who were unfamiliar with the issue up until that point, and hearing people express genuine concerns was immensely impactful and touched her heart, she says.
“When I got up that morning and I prayed in my head, I could feel my ancestors with me, and then to get the reaction I did, I felt proud to be Native American, and I felt honored to do this,” Ann says.
But it’s frustrating to feel like an afterthought, Ann says.
“We’re Native American, this was our land before it was anybody’s land. We were here first,” she says.
Auburn resident and Muckleshoot tribal member Tammy Sue Byars first met Ann when they were both five years old during a community prayer event at Gonzaga University and was immediately struck by her energy and outgoing nature.
“In a crowd, most people are kind of dull, not wanting to do anything or participate, but not Ann,” Byars says.
Ann bears her soul for her community, Byars says, she’s always there for everybody and volunteers to cook for funerals and assists in any way she can.
When Byars’ grandniece, Kaylee Mae Nelson-Jerry, went missing over a year ago from the Seattle area, Ann was there for her and her family. Ann will still call and check up on the family to make sure they are doing as well as they can, given the circumstances.
About a week ago, Byars’ family received a call from Seattle police about a woman they believed to be her niece.
“Everything kind of came to a halt, all of us just kind of raced back home so we could try to figure out what we’re going to do,” Byars says.
But the woman wasn’t Byars’ niece. And that was a hard thing for the family to deal with. Ann was there—on the phone—but still there, and that matters, Byars says.
“It’s a rollercoaster,” Byars says, “and despite the distance, Ann will check up on us and rally people all over to raise awareness about my niece.”
Ann has continued to put on her traditional regalia and take a stance against the issue of MMIP in Washington, particularly Spokane, where she resides. And three summers ago, Ann headed to New York with plans to continue raising awareness all across the country, adding that whenever she finds herself in a big city, she makes it her mission to bring awareness.
“I got the same reaction from a lot of non-Native American people, asking about the issue, noting that they didn’t even know this was happening,” Ann says.
Visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was particularly impactful to Ann, Jessica, and her sister, bringing them to tears. It was emotional to hear Holocaust survivors recount their experiences and share their stories, she says.
The history of mistreatment against Native Americans is long and remains largely unrecognized.
“I remember walking out of the museum and just telling my mom that it would nice if we had a museum dedicated to Native Americans that explained the history of what happened to us to bring more awareness,” Jessica says.
Some people think Native Americans only exist in the past, and that they don’t exist in present times, Jessica says, so it was amazing to see her mother dress in her traditional regalia and advocate for MMIP awareness.
“My mom, she is not shy at all. She is the loudest person in the stands at basketball games, she’s the first one on the dance floor,” Jessica says. “That’s why I wasn’t surprised she didn’t feel out of place.”
Jessica says she decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work because of her mom.
“Seeing my mom participate in many community events and really try to make a difference in other people’s lives drove me to like social work,” she says. “I saw how much it mattered.”
Ann was the first youth coordinator to work with the Spokane Tribe in 2002 and eighteen years later continues her work to provide children with the guidance they need to succeed alongside fifteen other youth coordinators.
“Oh man, I love my job,” Ann says. “I try to teach kids all I know so that we can keep our culture going. We need to carry it on because if they don’t learn it then they cannot teach it to the next generation.”
Ann takes the time to work with kids on an individual level and doesn’t treat any of them differently, Byars says.
“She puts her heart into everything that she does,” Byars says. “She puts herself out there and puts all the love she has into the things she does.”
It’s inspiring to see Ann wear her traditional regalia so proudly and advocate for the community, Byars says.
“When I grew up, we were called dirty mucks, we were put down for being Native, you know, we were like scum,” Byars says. “Her standing up, getting out there and being seen, that makes me proud because she’s not ashamed, and when I look at her now, I think, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re just like your mom.’”
Ann is the type of person to want to protect her community, Byars says. Many people might look at Ann’s outgoing nature and maybe judge it unfairly, she added.
“It’s like a bucket of crabs, you know, where crabs are trying to get out, but Ann’s out of that bucket, she goes, ‘You guys can’t pull me down, I’m not gonna let you pull me down, and I’m gonna keep going forward,’ and that’s what I love about her,” Byars says.
Ann has a lot of attitude, and no matter what happens she moves forward, Byars says.
The strive to make sure traditions and the culture are passed from one generation to the next is the reason why the Salish language is still taught, as well as spiritual traditions, respect of elders, and traditional singing and drumming.
“Our ancestors fought for us to be here, and we need to respect that and be proud of that and continue to carry on our cultural traditions and customs,” Ann says
She has brought kids from the Westend Youth Center, where she works, to rally and march alongside other Native Americans in unity during Spokane rallies and protests for Indigenous issues, including MMIP.
“I felt it was important to show them that we’re still here and we’re strong people and when we unite it’s a powerful thing,” Ann says. “That’s why we do it.”
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