Yakama Elder Breaks Silence on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Emily Washines

Yakama Elder Breaks Silence on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. A Blog by Native Friends, Emily Washines. Graphic Design by Native Anthro


Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women are receiving more awareness, more data collection, more mainstream media coverage and some state and federal elected officials calling for solutions to address this issue.

This movement is also known as #MMIW.        

There are elders we look to for their good words and lessons. A Yakama elder breaks her silence on a 1850s historical account and her own personal story of facing predatory behavior.

Phyllis LittleBull is 78-years-old. We are enrolled members of the 14 Confederated tribes and bands of the Yakama Nation, which has a reservation is 1.3 million acres with a ceded area that spans 12 million acres and a usual and accustomed area that spans thousands of miles (12 Stat., 951).

We visit at Yakama Nation Community Center, in Toppenish, Washington.

“What you said is true,” said Phyllis LittleBull.

We visit about the presentations I give throughout Washington state about the Yakama War. For us, the conversation flows, because it starts with an understanding.

Knowledge Gaps

If you do not know or agree with the high statistics Native women face or call to action to fix it, then it will be hard to accept what she shares.

We talk about the knowledge gaps that may exist because we are protective of our elders’ stories.

Historical Record

History is written by the survivors and Yakamas are still here.

Our Yakama historical account is not widely accepted by western society. In 164 years, our local newspaper has quoted a Yakama historical account of the Yakama War 5 times. This has all been in the past 5 months.

This story has historical trauma. In 1855, a woman and two children were raped and murdered by miners. However, most history books begin with the killing of Agent Bolon and miners. They neglect to write about the women and the girl and a baby in a cradleboard that were killed.

These are the first post-Treaty of 1855 murders of Yakama females by white men. They have yet to be acknowledged by the United States or any Governor of Washington.

This is a long pattern of violence against Native women. A trust factor that begins to rebuild when we as a country are able to face the violent history of our Nation towards Yakama women and other Native women. Perhaps it is U.S. Representative Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and U.S. Representative Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) will help address. They are the first Native American women elected to Congress.

A few in Congress have recently supported our Native women sharing data and stories which are Senator Maria Cantwell, Senator Patty Murray, and Senator Jon Tester.

Here is the big deep down, misty-eyed, throat clenches truth of it from this Yakama: we fear they all are not ready to face our history.

For 164 years, no member of Congress or Washington Governor has been willing to. So, Yakama women carry this.  


There is a long pattern of underreporting violence towards Yakama women. Search “Yakima/Yakama War and they describe how our people were hostile and blood-thirsty while in truth, we were defending our Yakama women and children. Think of the message this sends to our people when we stand up for our women.

For some Yakamas, silence is a part of our survival. A default reaction of trauma because some feel the predatory behavior and violence Yakama women face will not be acknowledged or fixed.

Our Yakama elder, breaks her silence, hoping to illuminate a pathway.

Her stories

It is important to share Phyllis LittleBull’s story as much as it is to describe the methodology. Her family will ask, “When did you tell this to Emily?

I was looking down, reviewing some notes, I saw someone approach and pause in front of me. Petite feet. As I look up, it was one of our Yakama elders.

At this time, I was not sure what was going to be shared. Did I miss anything in my history presentation? Her sister just mentioned she is really strict with this history.

Phyllis Littlebull sat down and began with her family history.

I got very emotional when she shared her stories.

There are some Yakama historical accounts that are still questioned by people. Just as there are some present-day Yakama women accounts that are still questioned by people. In both instances, we are careful what we share. She has a reason for opening up.

I feel so bad for these girls, women and their families,” said Phyllis Littlebull referencing the missing and murdered Yakama women, as well as the stalking and predatory behavior Yakama women face.

There is a certain amount of emotional labor that comes with building awareness and sharing. When Yakama elder, Phyllis Littlebull asks me to share her story, she has to relive the story both of the trauma from 1855 and 1960s/70s. This process of sharing these stories connects the generations of threats our Yakama women face.


“When I was little, they would talk a lot about the Yakama War,” said Phyllis Littlebull beginning to talk about the time during the war. “My grandma was root digging. There are a few places we go,” she said, holding her arm up to gesture north the different areas.

The story involves a wingdress, which is a traditional style of clothing Yakamas and other women from tribes wear.

One day while they were out, it was just my grandma and three girls. None of the Yakama men around. Then they heard someone coming. This was wartime. There were soldiers* on horseback coming their way. The girls got really scared. They started crying, saying, ‘Oh, oh, we’re gonna get raped, they gonna hurt us.’ They were really whimpering and sad. They felt their life was over. I remember my elders would talk about this time. Something that they knew would happen to women and girls. Those girls crying around, they stopped digging roots and were antsy, nowhere to hide. But grandma didn’t want that. She told those girls ‘hurry up, you line up. Get over here behind me. Like this,’ [she motions her arms behind her] ‘Get, close now.’ The girls were scared and didn’t know what she was doing. They just lined up in a single file behind her. Those men came closer. There were several of them. The grandma was in a wingdress, so were the girls. They were outnumbered. Grandma rolls up her windgress all the way to her shoulders. Like this, see, she gets it all the way up past her shoulders. Those men are really close now maybe 30 feet away to where they are going to say something to her and she puts her thumbs under and tugs really hard. She folded up her wingdress and showed herself [her chest]. The soldiers were shocked, they rode off away from them and left them alone. She saved those girls. That’s what was told to me.

*Soldiers is used as a general translation and can mean either militia or military.

Phyllis and I talk about the area this happened. She identifies three possible locations. All are within a 16-mile radius of each other. One location she names matches to within a 3-mile radius of the 1855 historical account of where the Yakama woman and children were killed.

In a remarkable test of defense, her grandmother makes herself into a shield for the girls.


The next story is from the 1960s-1970s timeframe. She said, “1960s, 1970s.” I am unsure if this carried on for 10 years or less. Because of the emotion in recalling the memory, I do not go back and ask her to clarify a more specific timeframe.

“I was thinking about what these women face,” Phyllis said, mentioning the stalking, missing, and murdered Yakama women. “You know, at one time, I went through something.” She tells her story evenly paced voice, not a whisper but soft.

There was this white farmer, he just would come around. I’d see him show up in places he wasn't supposed to be. I thought, ‘Oh well maybe I’m just imagining it. Maybe it’s nothing.’ He would kind of pop up in odd places I would see him peeking in windows or around corners. I started to get more and more scared. Things would move around in my house. Little things at first. One time I came home and saw 2 sets of clothes set out on top of my bed. At the end. They were lined up, just like a person wears it. With the clothes hanging down on the side of the bed I would sleep. Like that’s what he wanted me to wear. He got into my house, he went through my things. What could I do?

She shakes her head.

At this point, I’m not sure what she wants me to do with her stories. We are both quiet for a few moments. I’ve stopped writing notes. My paper in hand, her knees nearly touching mine, our knees meet at a V. I feel unsteady and I’m blinking back tears about the unfairness of how we have to live. But there is a strength I feel from her. She leans in closer, points at the paper said, “You share this story.” Yakama women are strong.

Her story still makes grown men cringe. When she tells it, she re-experiences it. But she is breaking her silence in hopes that together we can fix the problems.  

January is National Stalking Awareness Month. “More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women (89%) have experienced stalking by a non-Native perpetrator,” according to the Coalition to Stop Violence against Native women.


The historical account she shares has been passed generation to generation.

Next Steps

There is a community meeting at Yakama Nation on January 14, 2019, to address the missing Native women.

There are many of our neighbors and Yakamas asking for a change.

“With this meeting being set again, I sincerely hope to hear updates from our Tribal Council and those who are gathering the data from our reservation that is to be reported to the Washington State Patrol,” said Myrna Cloud, a Yakama tribal member.  

“These numbers are important, and the people need to hear that our leaders are making sure they’re getting reported. The ‘Awareness’ phase has been accomplished, its time to start seeing the next steps taken to resolve and prevent this epidemic for past and future generations.”

Let us have the strength to live by our elder’s words, “You share this story.”

The patterns in history and present intertwine when we talk about threats to our Native women.

Upcoming Events

  • Monday, January 14, 2019, MMIW Community Meeting in Toppenish, WA

  • Saturday, January 19, 2019, Women’s March (Numerous Locations).

  • Tuesday, January 29, at 10am CWU Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Lecture and MMIW Memorial in Ellensburg, WA


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