The last time Ernestine Morning Owl spoke with her younger sister, Mavis Nelson, was in April, she said.
For two months, she had no clue that anything was amiss with Nelson, 56, assuming she was busy with her job working the front desk at a rehabilitation 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 sharp-force wounds.
“It was devastating,” Morning Owl said, “because, first of all, I didn’t even know she was missing.”
As police continue their investigation, family and friends of Nelson, who was a tribal member of the Yakama Nation, are speaking publicly in an effort to bring her killer to justice.
But they wonder why there doesn’t seem to be sustained urgency in Nelson’s case or awareness about it in a state that has launched the nation’s first alert system for missing Indigenous people and convened a statewide task force on the issue afflicting Native American communities.
Roxanne White, a friend of Nelson’s and founder of a grassroots group in Washington state that advocates on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous people, said Nelson’s death has begun to garner attention this week but only because her friends and family have been speaking out, not because of law enforcement.
“I’m hoping that somebody goes back to this timeline and somebody remembers something,” White said. “All this time lost is crucial. We need to put these pieces of the puzzle together so that we can end this. Her 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 have at least done so because “she never missed work.” Police released information about the case on June 21, a day after Nelson’s body was discovered, but did not provide her name.
In an email Friday, Seattle police said the department “does not release the names of crime victims,” but they may be provided by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Nelson’s family and friends say they have lingering questions, including how long her body may have been outdoors, and don’t know whether police are any closer to identifying a suspect. White said by not publicizing her friend’s name, investigators may be losing valuable leads.
“That’s extremely backwards,” 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 friendly. White had been going through personal issues, and Nelson gave her a warm meal and a place to rest.
“She was a beautiful person, and I never forgot how kind she was to me,” said White, who has not seen Nelson in years and was surprised to learn in June from a tribal elder that she had been killed. “In a situation like what happened with Mavis, that was a real sad thing that not even myself as a grassroots advocate had heard that she was missing until she was found murdered.”
Washington’s Missing Indigenous Person Alert was rolled out in July, about two months after Gov. 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 by text message and flashed on electronic highway signs.
Two alerts have been distributed since the program launched, including one last week in which a person was located within 24 hours.
While not every case of a missing Indigenous person may benefit from the alert system, its supporters say such incidents should be communicated 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 issue is particularly acute in Washington, where the rate of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women is about four times higher than that of white women, according to research she helped collect in 2019. Native Americans make up just 2% of the state population.
Echo-Hawk said law enforcement has historically failed to accurately collect racial and ethnic data and continues to misclassify Indigenous people. And when Indigenous people are identified, she added, they are not always afforded the same treatment by authorities.
“We know that whether it be a rural or an urban police department, we have incredible implicit bias of our people who go missing and murdered,” Echo-Hawk said. “They are subject to implied stereotypes, questioned if they were runaways or substance abusers or doing sex work. They automatically assume we did something that we deserved for this to happen to us.”
The Washington State Patrol has tracked about 132 active cases of missing Indigenous people as of this week, and said it will release a poster with a person’s photo only when the family or lead law enforcement agency requests it.
Echo-Hawk said she often comes across family members who receive little to no information about their loved ones’ cases, leaving them to gather their own tips.
“That creates even more distrust between the community and law enforcement,” she added.
But a statewide task force assembled to address the disproportionate number of Indigenous people who are missing and murdered suggested in a report this week that a cold case unit be created within the state attorney general’s office. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he will request 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 somebody’s asking questions about an investigation, and there’s pressure being put on law enforcement agencies to solve these cases.”
For Morning Owl, her priority is to retrace her sister’s last days and understand why someone would have wanted to harm 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 their other siblings in the Seattle area.
Family members would refer to Nelson as “Boots,” because as a girl, she loved dancing to the Nancy Sinatra song, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.'”
“She was the kind of person that didn’t like to bother anybody,” 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 area of the University of Washington campus. Her family has not yet been able to hold a burial, Morning Owl said, because the coroner still has her body as part of the investigation.
“I’m OK with that,” Morning Owl added. “Right now, I feel like she’s talking through me, and I can be her voice.”