Meet Rosalie Fish, athlete and activist for Indigenous women

Illustration of athlete and activist Rosalie Fish, running with red paint on her face and leg reading "MMIW"
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

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Content warning: violence, sexual harassment, drug misuse and suicide 

When Rosalie Fish races, she stands out. Not because she is fast — fast enough to place first in three events at the Washington state track meet in 2019 — but because she races for a cause greater than herself: raising awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“They are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and our aunts,” Fish said in October 2019 while addressing an audience at a TEDx event.

For Fish, who is a member of the Cowlitz and Muckleshoot tribes, the epidemic of missing and murdered women is not something she needed to learn about in a classroom. In 2004, her own aunt, Alice Looney, went missing. Looney’s body was discovered 15 months later, but her family was never given answers.

Unfortunately, the experiences of Fish and her family are part of a larger trend. Indigenous women are disproportionately subjected to violence, yet they often remain invisible to both law enforcement and the media. The murder rate for Indigenous women is 10 times the average national murder rate, and Indigenous women younger than 35 face the highest risk. And yet, cases are vastly underreported and underinvestigated. As mothers, sisters and aunts go missing without a trace in Native communities, children and teenagers struggle to cope with the trauma. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Native youth.

If Fish hadn’t found an immense passion for running, she could have become another statistic. While attending high school off the reservation, Fish faced relentless sexual harassment by upperclassmen, who faced no repercussions for catcalling, photographing and grabbing Fish and other young girls. In an effort to cope, Fish began misusing anti-depressant medications, but her life became increasingly joyless. On Feb. 9, 2016, at the age of 14, Fish attempted suicide. Fortunately, she was eventually able to receive the support she so desperately needed.

In an effort to recover from her suicide attempt, Fish decided to enroll at the high school on her reservation. She poured her efforts into running, feeling a heavy responsibility to represent her Native community at track and cross country meets to the best of her capabilities. But the continued violence and lack of safety experienced by those in her community were things she could no longer ignore. She was inspired by athlete and activist Jordan Marie Daniel after Daniel painted a red handprint across her face at the 2019 Boston Marathon to give a voice to Indigenous victims who had been silenced. Fish reached out to her, and Daniel became a mentor to Fish.

At the 2019 Washington state track meet, Fish laced up her spikes and painted a red handprint across her face in remembrance of Indigenous women in her community who had been lost to violence. She competed in four races — the 1,600-meter, 800-meter, 3,200-meter and 400-meter — dedicating each race to a missing or murdered Indigenous woman, such as Renee Davis, a pregnant woman who was shot and killed by police officers on the Muckleshoot Reservation in 2016. The 1,600-meter race carried a special meaning, as Fish dedicated it to her aunt. She earned first-place medals in the 1,600-meter, 800-meter and 3,200-meter races and a second-place medal in the 400-meter. Fish gifted each medal to the families of the women she ran for.

After graduating from high school, Fish went on to run at Iowa Central Community College, where she has continued to use athletics to shed light on Indigenous issues. She spoke about missing and murdered Indigenous women at a TEDx conference and partnered with Levi’s and Vice to produce a short film alongside other Indigenous activists. On Nov. 17, Fish ran her last race as a collegiate runner, the NJCAA Half Marathon Championship. Fish dedicated each of the race’s 13 miles to a different missing or murdered Indigenous woman and crossed the finish line in fifth place with a red handprint stained upon her face.

When Fish toes the line for a race, she carries the traumas experienced by both her own Indigenous community and Indigenous communities across the country. At times, this is a heavy burden for her to bear. But running has given Fish a platform, and she feels responsible to use it. With bright red paint across her face, Fish puts one foot in front of the other, courageously charging toward the future she envisions for Indigenous women.

Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].