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'Who do we call?': Inside one family's efforts to help an Indigenous woman living on Seattle's streets

The family of a woman searched several Seattle homeless encampments before finding a loved one and getting her treatment.

Editor's note: The day this story aired, the family of Shaulina Mae Bulltail said she was found and is receiving treatment at Harborview Medical Center.

SEATTLE - According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, the city of Seattle has the highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous people of any city nationwide.

The family of one woman they believed to be missing searched several Seattle homeless encampments, only to make a heartbreaking discovery.

Near the interchange of Interstate 5 and Interstate 90 is one of Seattle’s longest-standing homeless encampments. It's known as “The Jungle.” 

Outside the illegal encampment, the scent of burning sage carries a prayer for the Bulltail family.

“As we start this day, we just ask creator to … help us to find Shaulina,” said Roxanne White, founder of grassroots organization Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, People and Families (MMIWPF). White was preparing to enter the encampment with half a dozen members of Shaulina Mae Bulltail’s family. 

Credit: Roxanne White
The family of Shaulina Mae Bulltail prepare to search for her in "The Jungle."

For four days, the search for Bulltail led her family and White to several homeless encampments around the city. They offered food, clothing and sanitary supplies to the unhoused in exchange for critical information about Bulltail’s whereabouts.

One person in "The Jungle" said they "see her all the time."

Shaulina Mae Bulltail

Credit: Roxanne White
Shaulina Mae Bulltail

According to her family, the 31-year-old Idaho native moved to Seattle in 2017 with the father of her young child. Within months, her family said they stopped hearing from her. 

“I think that she got into the drug scene. The last couple of messages she had left her dad were just absolutely unbelievable. They didn't make any sense. Like, ‘Daddy, can you see the numbers on my forehead?’ And, about a year ago, he stopped getting any messages, any calls,” said Rhonda Taylor, Bulltail’s mother. 

On Wednesday, May 11, the family got their first glimpse of Bulltail after more than five years. What should’ve been a hopeful moment was heartbreaking.

On Thursday, May 12, Bulltail’s family said she was found in an encampment and is now receiving treatment at Harborview Medical Center.

“She's got pockmarks all over her face. Big pockmarks,” Tashina Bulltail, Shaulina’s sister, said prior to Shaulina getting treatment.

Credit: Roxanne White
Shaulina Mae Bulltail (left).

Tashina was overcome with emotion as she described seeing her sister for the first time in five years.

“She didn't want to have nothing to do with me. She just ran away from me. I don't know," she said. "She screamed and said, 'This lady is crazy. Help!' But then, I don't know, a few seconds later she turned around and told me she loves me.” 

The family called Seattle police for assistance. The family said no one responded to the scene. 

“Who do we call?”

White has a unique understanding of what Bulltail and her family were up against. 

“It's hard to express what a person might go through out here for five years. That part breaks my heart because I used to be homeless, and … I'm a trafficking survivor,” said White. “I know firsthand just what I survived, and I can't imagine. And then I can. [It] breaks my heart to know that she's walking around with no shoes, and that she never wears shoes.” 

White organized the four-day search as part of her work with MMIWPF. One of her goals is to get boots on the ground to help find missing Indigenous people in Seattle. White said it’s difficult to find the resources.

“I think that [the Seattle Police Department] really doesn't have the resources. There are countless - hundreds of thousands of missing Indigenous women, people, children. We have so many that we don't know at all where they're at. We need media - mainstream media - to shed light on this crisis in Indian country that's impacting our people. But we don't even have volunteers that are really capable of coming out here,” said White. 

"Not considered missing"

Seattle police told KING 5 Bulltail was "not considered missing."

In an email, Seattle police confirmed they had "prior contacts" with Bulltail over the years and even made a past "referral for evaluation.”

“I've got police reports that she's mentally unstable. And in all of these police reports, they still let her out on the streets,” said Taylor.

Due to privacy laws, it’s unclear if Bulltail ever received an evaluation or other mental health services.

“This child, this woman, this young lady is incapable of even asking for help. So that leaves the family to bear this burden on their own. The heartbreaking thing is, who do we call? I mean, there's nobody to call, there's nobody to come aid us,” said White. “There's gaps in the system.”

Just out of reach

Credit: Roxanne White
Shaulina Mae Bulltail missing poster.

Last year, an out-of-state Tribal court granted Bulltail’s mother guardianship over her. The hope was to commit Bulltail for mental health and addiction treatment.

However, Indigenous rights Attorney Gabe Galanda said the Tribal order is not automatically enforceable in King County and "Washington makes it very difficult to commit people against their will.” 

Armed with a potentially useless court order, Taylor said she felt hopeless. 

“I have done everything in a mother's power to see my child and fight against the system now for a while. My words mean nothing to them. And that's not OK. It's not OK,” Taylor said prior to May 12. 

It was a plea for help that White, a once missing Indigenous woman herself, hopes to answer through her foundation. 

"I think it's so important that we try to come in and do what we can so that she doesn't become one of our MMIW that never makes it home. That never gets to come home,” said White. "This is why I survived everything. This is why I survived. It was to help other families.” 

How you can help

This is roughly the sixth missing persons search White has organized as part of her nonprofit focusing on the families of missing and murdered indigenous people. She said she needs volunteers and donations to continue to raise awareness around the ongoing crisis. 

For more information on upcoming searches, volunteer opportunities and donations, visit: https://www.facebook.com/mmipandfamilies/ or email: mmip.families@gmail.com