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Kristen Millares Young in Seattle
The Native American actor played alongside Hollywood’s best. Last October, her body was found in a ravine after she went missing for 11 days, and her family still searches for answers and justice
When Misty Upham was 12, she announced herself to a Seattle classroom of aspiring performers. “My name is Misty Upham, and someday you will know that name as the best living Native American actress.”
Years later and against all odds, her prophecy became true. She acted alongside some of Hollywood’s best: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benicio Del Toro.
Last October Misty was found dead, skull and ribs broken, flies abuzz, in a wooded ravine in Auburn, Washington. Her body lay just above the turbulence of the White river. She was 32.
This story is about her demise. How she went missing for 11 days. How she was found by folks enlisted by her family, and not by the police. How she was mocked when she most needed help. How she survived rapes. How she inspired kids. And how as an indigenous woman, she was not alone in facing injustice.
Charles Upham looks down the ravine where Misty Upham’s body was found. Photograph: Mike Kane for The Guardian
Born on 6 July 1982, Misty grew up in Montana and Washington, moving on and off the Blackfeet reservation according to her family’s financial needs. Her father was a music teacher, her mother a homemaker and occasional entrepreneur; they raised their three children as evangelical Christians.
Both of her parents were sent to boarding schools under a federal policy that eroded indigenous cultural and linguistic ties across the country. Still, Charles Upham wanted better for his children than reservation life.
“I was determined to take my kids away from the reservation, where so many young people fail out, to a place where they could get an education, have a grounding experience. I told the kids that they were going to learn that there is a stigma associated with being an American Indian. That people were racist, and that we lived under this stigma of alcoholism and being uneducated.”
Misty found out the hard way in the city of Billings, where her family moved so her father could pursue his college degree in music education. “She had a friend who used to play with her and have her over at her house – until her mom found out that Misty was Native,” Charles recalls. “Then her friend said they couldn’t be friends anymore, because her mom didn’t want to her to get bugs. Misty was crying to me, asking, ‘What bugs?’ And I said, ‘She probably thinks we have lice.’ Let me tell you, my kids were very clean and well dressed.”
Their relative comfort worked against them once housing circumstances obliged them to return to the Blackfeet reservation, where jobs are hard to come by. “We had nice things. Other kids were poor. They invited Misty to watch some horses being broken, 20 kids out there. They beat her up.”
Misty would later talk openly about being gang raped on the reservation when she was 13. She wrote about the physical and emotional legacy on her blog, The Struggles and Triumphs of a Blackfeet Native With a Dream, which was made private after her death. In it, she wrote:
First there is the physical pain and never being able to forget it. The fear of having someone hold you down, the cheering and the laughter. All these noises won’t leave my mind. I keep hearing it, like a ghostly voice. But the physical is nothing compared to the mental.
That was not her first rape, either. Heather Rae (Cherokee), a film producer who was Misty’s friend, said she “talked about having been abused as a young age, someone close to the family, that started when she was very young and continued.” Because of these traumas, Rae said, Misty was “extraordinarily sensitive and contended with high levels of anxiety” throughout her life.
Misty was not alone in her suffering. More than one in three Native women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, a rate 2.5 times higher than other US women.
On the red carpet, on set, alone in her hotel rooms, Misty was afflicted by panic attacks that began when she was a teen. She fought to control them with prescribed medications and alcohol, both of which she abused. When those didn’t work, she cut herself, leaving dozens of small scars on her forearms.
While her parents tried, they were not able to protect her from being damaged by her environment. During her time on the reservation, Misty became infected with the H pylori bacterium, common to places without clean water and proper sewage control and causing stomach ulcers. She threw up repeatedly until stomach acids ate her teeth and forced her to use dentures.
It was fresh from that experience that Misty summoned the courage to declare her hopes to the world. She would become an actress. Not just any actress – the best.
Fern Renville (Sisseton Wahpeton) is the managing director of Red Eagle Soaring, the Native theatre group that gave Misty her start. Renville said Misty “exemplified Indian persistence. She was tough as nails. She never expressed self-pity. She would express pain or angst, but not self-pity.”
Despite being told by her first drama teacher to find another line of work, “she kept at it for five years, writing, directing, acting, finding her way in performance,” her father said.
Eventually, Misty was filmed auditioning in Seattle. At the age of 20, she appeared in her first feature, Skins. The roles kept coming: Edge of America, Expiration Date, Frozen River, Big Love, Django Unchained. Misty only suffered from dry spells when she “refused to take ‘rez roles’” portraying Native Americans as stereotypical drunks.
Charles left his job so he and his wife could stay with their daughter, who could not handle being alone. Their repeated moves, accumulated debt and occasional homelessness left a heavy load on Misty’s young shoulders. She cleaned houses between casting calls and film festivals, working tirelessly to keep herself and her family afloat.
The list of her roles grew steadily – Jimmy P, August: Osage County, and Cake, released after her death – and with it, her status as the pre-eminent Native actor. Despite her success, mental illness and substance abuse continued to plague her.
“Acting has saved me from darkness many times,” Misty said in June 2014 of her motivation to create a children’s theatre troupe. “And most Native children have dreams just like every other child, but they may never touch those dreams because of poverty and isolation. I’m going to change that.”
Melissa Leo, who co-starred with Misty in Frozen River, was one of a constellation of supporters who let Misty couch surf as a respite from the needs and fights of her family. Misty had “an extraordinarily complicated family life and reality,” she said. “People saw her talent and overlooked the rest and hoped and prayed and helped her as we could.”
This pattern continued after Misty left California for Washington to stay with her father as he recovered from a stroke. Misty and her parents moved into her sister’s apartment, across the street from the Muckleshoot casino and downhill from the shabby forest where she would meet her death.
The medical examiner in King County ruled that Misty died due to blunt force trauma to the head and torso – injuries consistent with her plummet off a steep embankment. Using the cycles of fly larvae found in and around her body, the examiner dated the time of her death to the night of the first day of her disappearance. However, the medical examiner ruled that the manner of her death –whether by foul play, suicide or accident – could not be determined.
According to the toxicology report, Misty’s blood alcohol level was .33 at the time of her death – a level of intoxication so extreme that its symptoms are complete unconsciousness, incontinence, low body temperatures and depressed or absent reflexes.
Friends and family said she was addicted to benzodiazepines to quell her anxiety. In her ongoing effort to bring her emotional and chemical balance under control, Misty had been prescribed Prozac, Ambien, Ativan, Xanax, Venlafaxine and Zoloft, her father said.
Like many low-income people living with mental illness, Misty relied on emergency room care after she moved back to Washington, in part because she had difficulty re-establishing psychiatric care to continue her prescriptions for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and PTSD.
Reliant on the Indian Health Service, and perhaps unaware that she could supplement her healthcare with other resources under the Affordable Care Act, Misty was not able to secure a psychiatric appointment to continue her most critical prescriptions until late November – more than a month after she died, and more than five months after she moved back to Washington, according to her father.
While 70% of American Indians live in urban areas, only 1% of the Indian Health Service budget addresses urban programs, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. This massive funding discrepancy shortchanges many people in serious need.
Still, Misty kept her sense of humor. During an ER visit to treat a panic attack, a nurse asked her about working with Meryl Streep. “I said sure,” Misty wrote on Facebook. “But not while you’re holding my pee.”
Misty’s newest movie, August: Osage County, was released to wide acclaim in the beginning of 2014. Amid a flurry of film promotions, Misty learned she was pregnant, announcing on 28 May that she would name her child Leaf, whether it was a boy or a girl. The identity of the father remains unclear.
“She was going to keep the baby – a baby boy,” her father said. “She started keeping a journal for him, telling him who she was, how much she loved him, what she ate that day, anything and everything.” Leaf gave her the reason she had been looking for to stay sober. “She quit drinking instantly,” Renville said. “She was very firm.”
But less than a month after announcing her pregnancy, Misty wrote on Facebook:
I am losing my pregnancy as we speak. I don’t know if it is stress or what but it breaks my heart when people mention little Leaf. I trust God and there is a reason. Leaf will return to me some day and it will be under better circumstances. Thank you for all the prayers. Now I can focus on helping my parents to keep me busy.
Family and friends said that her emotional state frayed as summer ceded to fall. Still, she used her online presence to promote awareness of issues that many others try to hide. On 18 August, she posted:
I’m doing something that may be career suicide, but I thought, “How will people understand what we’re going through? The mentally ill. I will be one of the many who have decided to be honest with my feelings, not to get sympathy or attention but to let people know there is such a thing as mental illness and it is more common than you think. It doesn’t discriminate nor favor. It is the edge of loneliness. But that with help there is a sunnyside. There is always a sunnyside.
Hope and health remained hard to reach for Misty.
On 15 August 2014, seven weeks before Misty’s death, Charles called the police. Misty was throwing things and swinging scissors around the family’s small apartment.
Just after his call, an employee of the Muckleshoot Market & Deli across the street phoned the police. A “yelling, rambling” and shoeless woman was “prowling vehicles” behind the business, according to reports emailed by responding officers, who wrote that Misty was hiding in the bushes and would not be coaxed out, lunging at an officer who ducked into the foliage to talk to her.
“I remember each of us grabbing one of Misty’s wrists then walking out with her,” at which point “she began kicking, rolling on the ground and flailing her arms violently while yelling and screaming,” an officer wrote. They handcuffed her and put her into the back of a patrol car, where he described her thrashing on the floor, spitting out her dentures, screaming “I am going to get all your badges!” and shouting that she would have “her lawyers make all of the officers lose our jobs” for mistreating a movie star.
In this account, Misty made a spectacle of herself.
Watching from across the street, her father saw a different scene.
“They were tapping the glass and making faces at her. She was crying and telling them to stop, that they couldn’t treat her like this. And an officer said, ‘Well, if you’re a movie star, why don’t you call up George Clooney?’ Her mom was telling me to go over there, and I said, ‘No, it’s better that they don’t know we’re watching. I’ll just get arrested.’ But I had to take her purse to them. It had her medications, so I go over there, and he said to me, ‘Is she delusional? She thinks she’s a movie star.’ And I said, ‘She is.’”
Misty was involuntarily committed that night – her third time. An emailed police summary of Misty’s case indicates she was afraid of being detained on involuntary hold again; her father said a hospital worker told her she could be committed for a year.
In a Facebook post, Charles Upham described the rest of the day:
After Misty arrived at the ER we went to see her and she has a swollen jaw, black eye and scratches and bruises on her shoulder. I asked the ER staff what happened and they said Misty was brought in like that. Misty said she couldn’t remember what happened but that’s why she feared the police.
Later on, the family would accuse the Auburn police department of brutality and mockery. “They denied it,” Charles said. “We witnessed it.”
The Auburn police countered with a press release that claimed they had responded to each of her family’s calls “professionally and with compassion.”
The responding officers wrote reports about that August night for administrative review, and one contained an admission that none of the other officers reported to have seen or heard:
Based upon the totality of the circumstances it appeared to me Upham’s severe level of intoxication had caused her to fabricate her profession as a Hollywood actress with a Hollywood agent. I sarcastically questioned Upham about her profession and asked if she had ever met Hollywood actor Robin Williams … At one point I interrupted her threats by making an abrupt and spontaneous babble noise in an attempt to distract her from her rants and get her to quit yelling.
It is unclear whether Misty sustained the scratches and bruises claimed by her family due to some prior event, police brutality, or as a byproduct of being dragged out of the bushes and handcuffed against her will while awaiting medical transport for a psychiatric evaluation. But to frame this officer’s sarcastic mockery and gibberish as professional and compassionate is, on its face, untrue.
When the Guardian questioned the Auburn police department about it, commander Mike Hirman said: “Naturally, it was embarrassing for the department because we strive for professionalism.” Calling the officer’s actions “unprofessional,” Hirman said, “we coached him, counseled him and noted it in his file. That behavior was not consistent with our core values.”
However, Hirman denied that the Auburn police played a role in the injuries claimed by her family, adding “there was a great likelihood that she was injured because she was intoxicated with alcohol and prescription drugs.” When asked how he knew that the officers had not injured Misty, Hirman said, “Whenever an officer uses force on any subject … they are required to do a force report, and there were no force reports.”
Less than one week after officers took his daughter into custody in the deli parking lot for a psychiatric evaluation, Charles called 911. According to the police, on 21 August 2014 Misty tried to hang herself and throw herself out her second floor window, both times restrained by her family. Misty was involuntarily committed again.
Two days later, again according to police records, Misty was “cooperative, friendly and calmed.” She told a counselor brought to the ER that she “wanted anxiety meds” but had no “plan, intent or means to kill herself.” The report states that Misty was given a safety plan but makes no mention of medication.
Six weeks later, on 5 October, she disappeared.
On that day, her father said Misty was inconsolable. Once again, he dialed 911. Charles said Misty ran off; he got his coat and ran right after her.
At the bottom of the stairs, he heard somebody say “Hey.” The police officers walked up, he said; they insisted on searching the apartment. He told them she was not here, adding that they needed to find her now. But they made him go inside, and they “searched the whole apartment, looking in the closets and everything, which took about 10 minutes. She was gone.” Charles said he told the officers: “‘She could be hurt. I need you to help me find her!’ They said, ‘We can’t. You have to wait 24 hours for her to be missing.’”
Hirman contradicted the family’s account. “That is not our policy at all. If someone wants to report somebody missing, we do so right away.” Police categorized that call as involving a person who was suicidal, not missing, Hirman said; officers left after checking the areas in and around the family’s apartment.
The medical examiner estimated that she died about six hours later.
Still, while Auburn police records show that a detective was assigned to investigate Misty’s disappearance on 7 October, two days after she went missing, there would be no official police search party, despite the family’s repeated and desperate requests. “They said: ‘We don’t have evidence that she’s missing. She’s probably off partying somewhere with her friends,’” her father said.
Once her father called again to report Misty as missing on 6 October, Auburn police refused to elevate her status to endangered, which would issue a higher alert. On 10 October, when reporters asked the police department for a press release, commander Steve Stocker wrote that he had no plans to produce one.
Six days into the anguish of his daughter’s disappearance, Charles asked his cousin Robert Upham (Dakota) to marshal a search party.
Two days later, on 13 October, detective Loran Orvis, who was assigned to the case, wrote to a fellow officer to inquire about the outcome of search efforts for Misty. “Outcome? Nothing has been done yet,” replied officer Stephanie Bennett.
That same day, in response to many media inquiries, the police department issued its first press release confirming Misty was missing and asking for tips. Misty had been gone for eight days.
On 16 October, five days into Upham’s search efforts, friends Robert Kennedy (Tlingit/Athabascan) and Jeff Barehand (Gila River/Navajo) took time away from their work and families to search for Misty.
Misty’s purse in the woods where she died. Photograph: Auburn police department
As board president of Red Eagle Soaring, Barehand had seen Misty lead Native youth in workshops. It was his turn to help her. After a few hours of fruitless searching, Barehand consulted a map and zeroed in “on a wooded area that’s both secluded and in the middle of the city. A place where bad things happen.”