When she stepped to the starting line at the Class 1B state track and field championships at Eastern Washington University this month, Rosalie Fish didn’t have winning on her mind. Instead, she was thinking about Misty Anne Upham, Alice Looney, Jacqueline Salyers, Renee Davis, and Davis’s unborn baby.
All the people who Fish held in her heart during her races were indigenous women from her community who went missing or experienced violent deaths. She ran with a red hand painted over her mouth as a symbol of the women silenced in death and the letters MMIW on her leg, which stand for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
The Urban Indian Health Institute reports that in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, but the U.S. Department of Justice’s database only logged 116 cases. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women—and rates of violence on reservations are up to 10 times higher than the national average.
Fish, who won individual state titles in the 800, 1600, and 3200 meters, has brought greater awareness to the crisis through her activism on the track. As a member of the Cowlitz Tribe, the 18-year-old is set to graduate high school this week. Then she’s off to study and compete at Iowa Central Community College later this summer and will continue to advocate for the cause.
She spoke with Women’s Running by phone on Tuesday about what it was like to compete at the state championships, her plans for college, and how she hopes to use running as a platform for MMIW in the future.
What inspired you to use the state championships as a place to draw attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women?
I’ve always kind of considered myself somebody who cares about these issues. I in general always like to use my platform in running and in class to talk about these issues. I have always been very passionate about running and how it has made me a better person and just fulfilled my life. When I saw Jordan Marie Daniel run the  Boston Marathon combine these two things that I was really passionate about and I was just completely inspired. I found her through social media and asked her permission to do something like how she did. She was super enthusiastic and supportive.
Let’s talk about the meet itself. What kind of reaction did you experience from other runners and spectators? Did it fulfill your mission?
I got a variety of responses and most of them were positive. It was hard to tell sometimes what people were thinking by the way they were looking at me. I had a few…not really bad responses, but maybe more passive-aggressive. They were subtle hints that they didn’t agree with me or what I was doing. Like somebody said, “You have something on your face.” I just kind of said, “Yes. I do. Thank you for noticing.” I had to use sarcasm. I had a few officials say weird stuff to me. I don’t know if they were trying to be funny. I couldn’t really tell—a lot of people assumed it was war paint, which was a little frustrating.
The people who did ask me what it meant were really supportive. They wanted to express to me that they were proud of me and that they appreciated what I was doing.
What did it feel like to compete that way?
It completely changed how I went into my races. A lot of times we run too fast to run our best race and meet our personal goals. That’s something I’ve always done. To be running in a race and know that it’s not for me—that the race was for somebody else—the way that I continued, I wasn’t quite as competitive but more emotional. It was a weird way to go into a meet, to look at the meet records and say, “I’m not gonna really go for them, because it’s not right for me to run one race all-out for Alice and then not have enough energy to run a good race for Misty.”
That transformed my thinking and how I went into my races.
You still performed well. What did you think about your results?
I knew that in some races I was going to do better than others. I knew that in my race for Renee, the two mile, I was going to be pretty far off my PR because of how heavy I feel when I think about Renee and what she had experienced. And eight laps around the track is a long time to think about that.
What were you were thinking specifically?
She was a community member right here on the Muckleshoot Reservation and she had two kids and was pregnant with her unborn son. She was having some mental health concerns in the sense that she just wasn’t feeling well, so somebody in the community called in a welfare check for her and she and her unborn son were shot by the police, in front of the two kids, during the welfare check. A close family friend now takes care of the two kids. She was right in my town and to know the children she left behind and to think that her unborn son was murdered along with her it’s hard to keep the same competitive spirit. I’m telling her story in the hopes that people realize that action needs to be taken so things like this don’t happen.
That would certainly change your perspective on competition.
Just the paint itself even and what it represented—the issue—just feels really heavy when I’m trying to warm up. I can feel the weight of everything.
What does your community say about what you’re doing?
I get teased a lot because the photo was popular. I’ve had elders in the community who are making sure that I stay spiritually healthy and okay after doing that. I have friends and family saying, “Oh, you’re famous now. Don’t forget about me” and that kind of thing.
I think a lot of advocates have to be really cautious about knowing that you’re an ally in the cause, but you are not the sole speaker of the cause. You’re the platform to speak for or speak upon women that have had their voices taken from them. I’m still learning how to respectfully and accurately talk about these issues in a way that contributes to the cause.
You’ll be attending college in Iowa soon. Do you have any plans for the summer?
Not really. I just work at the fireworks stand in the summer. But we get to go on this team-bonding trip at a lake in Iowa, where we’ll also train.
So looking ahead, will running take on a different meaning or will you still use it as a way to advocate?
I definitely know that running is my platform and how I can be heard. I still have a lot to learn in how I can advocate aside from just my running. I’ve been in contact with Jordan Marie Daniel, constantly asking her, because I’m pretty young. Advocates who have been doing this so long and have completely humbled themselves to the cause, I’m still learning how to do that. She helps a lot when I’m overwhelmed or confused with all the interviews and stuff. She helps me figure out what I need to do better.
Has this experience given you any insight about what you want to study in college?
A little bit. I’ve kind of always known that I naturally want to put effort into these kinds of issues. It’s good to know that people to respond to it when I do. People have mentioned tribal law to me—I don’t really know if I’m the type to be a lawyer or anything like that, but I want to look into it. I want to do something reasonable and fulfilling to me that would also contribute to my community and to the Native Country as a whole.
What was it about Iowa Central Community College that was attractive to you?
A lot of people ask me that. Iowa? Okay. They’re known as a powerhouse junior college in running. To me, that felt like exactly what I needed—some place I knew I could work and people would be better than me. They can help me get ready for that next step. That’s the coach’s purpose—getting you ready to move on, in a nice way. Especially coming from a tiny school, it’s something I really appreciate having somebody understand that I’m not super familiar with college and college sports, but I want the opportunity to put the work in. The coach understands and respects that and wants to help me, so I’m grateful for that.
A little off-topic, but I read in a profile on DyeStat that you also fly planes?
Yes. Muckleshoot Tribal School started a program to get your pilot’s license. It just kind of ended up being that I was the person to try it out. I showed up on the first day expecting to open a book and learn something about planes, but I showed up on that first day and they were like, “Okay, jump in!” On Thursday I’ll fly from Auburn, Washington, to Astoria, Oregon, and back by myself. I like it, but when it comes down to it, it’s really expensive and it’s hard to have that as a career that gives back to my community. I’m sure I could find some way, but it doesn’t exactly tie into what I’m passionate about, which is speaking and advocating about the issues that surround my community.