Gerry Davis holds an empty picture frame which she intends to put a photo of her sister Mary at Hillcrest Park in Mount Vernon, Washington on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Gerry Davis holds an empty picture frame which she intends to put a photo of her sister Mary at Hillcrest Park in Mount Vernon, Washington on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Film shines light on missing Tulalip woman’s story — and larger crisis

“Missing From Fire Trail Road” spotlights the unsolved case of Mary Johnson-Davis. It premieres Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

EVERETT — For years now, Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis’ 16 nieces and nephews have missed their aunt.

All the unread books, all the unpicked blackberries, all the times she didn’t brighten their day with an impression of Scrat from the movie “Ice Age.”

In November 2020, Johnson-Davis was walking along Fire Trail Road on the north end of the Tulalip Reservation when she texted a friend she was “almost to the church.”

She’s been missing since.

Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis (FBI)

Wednesday marks 1,288 days of not knowing what happened to her.

In October 2022, her sisters, Nona Blouin and Gerry Davis, signed on to a documentary about Johnson-Davis’ disappearance, with the goal, Davis said, to “put her story out there, keep her alive.”

Missing From Fire Trail Road” is set to premiere Saturday at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

More than two dozen Lummi and Tulalip tribal members will attend the premiere, French-American director Sabrina Van Tassel said.

“Oh wow, I didn’t know,” Davis said. “If the tribe is behind me and Nona, I feel like we have everything that we need.”

The film aims to kickstart a national campaign. Van Tassel, together with activists, will show the documentary in many tribal lands across the country, bringing “all the tools that we have” to keep Indigenous people from going missing — and to rally resources when they do.

The sisters and Van Tassel want to go beyond awareness.

They want to find Johnson-Davis.

The state lists 122 active missing person cases of Indigenous people, according to the Washington State Patrol.

On average, people on the list have been missing for over two years.

Missing From Fire Trail Road – Documentary Trailer (FilmRise) from FilmRise on Vimeo.

‘Someone needs to find her’

Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, remembers the day Johnson-Davis vanished.

Word got out on social media. Parker, a Tulalip tribal member and former tribal vice chair, waited for public outcry. And waited.

“When the silence stayed and the silence remained, I wondered: ‘Why are we so silent about something that’s so important?’” said Parker, executive producer for the documentary.

She heard people talking about Johnson-Davis’ life struggles, as a way to downplay her disappearance. Parker wanted them to focus on what’s more important: finding Johnson-Davis.

“All of those factors can be, could be, true. Maybe, maybe not,” she said. “But the reality was, she’s missing and someone needs to find her.”

Over time, she accepted no spotlight would come for Johnson-Davis. Then, Van Tassel called Parker. The director had the money to make a documentary about Johnson-Davis.

Van Tassel’s work has sparked change before.

One of her previous documentaries, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” was about Melissa Lucio, a woman sentenced to death for the killing of her daughter. Van Tassel’s documentary argued it was a wrongful conviction.

That documentary also premiered at Tribeca and is now on Hulu. It galvanized a public campaign supporting Lucio.

Lucio’s death sentence was overturned in April 2022, in part because the prosecutor withheld evidence from Lucio’s defense.

“That, of course, tells me that everything is possible,” Van Tassel said. “There’s magic in cinema, there’s magic in documentaries.”

Gerry Davis poses for a photo at Hillcrest Park in Mount Vernon, Washington on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Gerry Davis poses for a photo at Hillcrest Park in Mount Vernon, Washington on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

‘Oppressors and oppressed’

Making the documentary helped Van Tassel understand the role of intergenerational trauma from colonization.

She said the root of the problem was, and is, that Indigenous lives do not matter as much to American society at large.

Van Tassel sees a thread of that history in her own family.

In the 17th century, one of her Dutch ancestors married the daughter of the leader of a Montauk tribe.

As a child, Van Tassel pictured this story as a fairy tale, only to realize as an adult that it probably involved rape, she said.

When she researched the tribe, she learned they had been all but wiped out.

“As Americans, we’re all part of it in one way or another,” she said. “We all have oppressors and oppressed people in our family.”

In modern times, a 2016 study found 84.3% of Indigenous women experienced violence in their lifetime, with 56.1% being victims of sexual violence, according to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Activists have pushed for policies to address a crisis that, for generations, saw little attention from the general public.

In 2021, state legislators in Olympia established the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & People Task Force.

And in 2022, the Washington State Patrol launched the Missing Indigenous Person Alert system. It broadcasts messages to subscribers and notifies relevant police agencies when an Indigenous person goes missing. As of June, the state patrol had issued 105 missing Indigenous person alerts, in new cases.

Eighty-nine were found alive.

Five were found dead.

Eleven are still missing.

In its 2023 interim report, the task force recommended the state increase funding for DNA testing and forensic genealogy of unidentified remains.

The task force also suggested establishing a work group co-led by the state Attorney General’s Office, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, family members and two Tribal Epidemiology Centers, to develop best practices for Indigenous demographic data collection by law enforcement, coroners and medical examiners.

The task force recommended the alert system be used nationwide.

A final report is due by June 1, 2025.

Gerry Davis poses for a photo with the words “Say Their Names” on her shirt at Hillcrest Park in Mount Vernon, Washington on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Gerry Davis poses for a photo with the words “Say Their Names” on her shirt at Hillcrest Park in Mount Vernon, Washington on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

‘Work together and get them back’

Johnson-Davis’ mother told her daughters one of them should become a tribal police deputy and the other a caseworker, Blouin recalled.

“So if we have any future family, and our kids get taken away, we can work together and get them back,” Blouin said.

The documentary retraces the sisters’ childhood.

When they were young, the state took them from their birth parents due to substance abuse. The girls were separated and put into foster care. There, they were abused, Blouin said.

Johnson-Davis and Blouin later sued the foster care system and received $300,000 settlements, Blouin said.

American Indian and Alaska Native children are overrepresented in foster care, according to a 2021 fact sheet by the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Roughly 1.8% of Washington children are Indigenous, while 5.6% of the children in foster care are Indigenous.

Davis plans to get a job in tribal law enforcement in Tulalip. But she doesn’t remember hearing the career advice from her mother. Instead it was her sister, Johnson-Davis, who inspired her.

“Her missing this long makes me want to help others who are going through the same as we are going through. Help protect and serve the tribal members,” she said. “Family helps and protects one another. We didn’t get the chance to protect our sister Mary.”

“If you speak of her as she was dead,” Davis added, “that means she’s not worth looking for.”

For now, she speaks of her sister in the present tense.

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

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