Warning: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.

In honor of the National Week of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, Oregon Ravens running back/linebacker and MMIR activist, Kola Shippentower, called on the youth of her community, from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Dressed in red regalia, with red painted handprints covering their mouths, they danced under stadium lights at Milwaukie High School during a game against the Seattle Majestics as rain poured from above like a sign from loved ones lost.

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Leadership Council pose for their photo after their halftime performance on May 4, 2024. From left: Abraham Shippentower, Abigayle McIntosh, Keyen Singer, GraceLynn Elwell, Melanee Bybee, Awna’ee Najera. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

“Being able to have my tribe come out and put on a show for everybody, but also honoring our loved ones that have gone on, that was what made [the game] even more special,” Shippentower, Umatilla, said after the game.

Before kickoff for the May 4 home game between the Oregon Ravens and the Seattle Majestics, Indigenous community members took to the field for a flag song, a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the National Anthem. Ravens team members wore black sleeves adorned with a red handprint, a symbol of the MMIR movement representing all the missing relatives whose voices are not heard.

GraceLynn Elwell and nearly two dozen Indigenous community members took to the field, some wearing red hand prints over their mouths to represent the missing relatives whose voices have been silenced. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

The crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives

Murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women across the U.S., with rates 10 times the national average for Indigenous women living on reservations, according to a 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute.

The beginning of May is marked with a week of action to bring awareness to the epidemic of missing and murdered relatives faced by Indigenous communities.

Oregon Ravens running back/linebacker Kola Shippentower, citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, hugs each dancer as they leave the field after the halftime performance. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

On May 3, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation acknowledging May 5 as a day of awareness. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek issued a similar proclamation on May 4.

“For far too long, the unsolved deaths and disappearances of Indigenous persons, especially women, have not seen justice,” Gov. Kotek said. “On Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, we recommit ourselves to addressing the root causes and systemic obstacles contributing to this crisis.”

While many Indigenous people have experienced first-hand the traumas of missing or murdered loved ones, it is still an epidemic that much of the country is unaware of due to the lack of coverage in media and data collection, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

During the halftime performance, fancy dancer Garian McDonald and nearly two dozen other community members and youth leaders from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Leadership Council danced to two different songs under the stadium lights and downpour of rain on May 4, 2024. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Though May 5 is a particularly important day for raising awareness, Shippentower has lost loved ones herself and is an active advocate for MMIR issues year round. Three years ago, she founded The Wisáwca Project, a consulting business where she trains people in self defense.

“There were a lot of people from the team that had no idea that this is an issue that we're facing right now,” Shippentower said. “Being able to bring those two components of my life together has been really, really powerful.”

At halftime, 14-year-old traditional dancer Abraham Shippentower, Umatilla, took to the field with other youth who are also part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Leadership Council. He said he remembered loved ones lost during the halftime performance honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. “The red handprint represents all those who went missing or were killed for no reason at all, other than simply that they were Native Americans,” Abraham said. “This represents who we lost. My mom had lost her brother, so this has a deeper meaning for our family as a whole.” (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

A halftime to remember

After the whistle marking the end of the first half echoed across the field at Milwaukie High School, Oregon Ravens and Seattle Majestics players cleared the field to take a much needed break in the locker room. All the players but one: Kola Shippentower, number 29. She stood on the sidelines as a group of more than 20 Indigenous young people took to the field in a blur of colorful beadwork and powwow regalia. Red handprints covered the mouths of half a dozen dancers.

Youth from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Leadership Council organized a dance to two songs, emceed by Umatilla elder Fred Hill Sr., to honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.

After the game, Native American players from each team took a moment to share a friendly embrace before taking pictures and signing autographs for fans. L to R: Kola Shippentower, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, running back/linebacker for the Oregon Ravens; and Billy Kennedy Jefferson, Lummi Nation, running back for the Seattle Majestics. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

During the halftime performance, Shippentower stood on the sidelines, eyes beaming with pride, as she watched powwow dancers from her community dance in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. Among those dancing were her two sons.

As the dance came to a close, youth surrounded Shippentower. One by one they felt her warm embrace before exiting the field.

The Ravens lost the game 29-8. Yet players from both teams walked off the field with smiles on their faces. Shippentower shared a friendly embrace with Majestics running back Billy Kennedy Jefferson, Lummi Nation.

In a huddle following the game, which the Oregon Ravens lost 29-8 to the Seattle Majestics, Ravens Coach Tim Price delivered a pep talk to the players. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Rain smeared Shippentower’s black face paint, mingling with tears dripping down her cheeks as she reflected on loved ones lost.

“In our teachings, rain washes away footsteps,” Shippentower said. “When loved ones pass on and they go on to the next place, their footsteps aren't here anymore. So now we get to go and move forward in a good way and celebrate them and honor them.”

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...

Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....