The Endurance Trials of Rosalie Fish – Seattle Met

The Endurance Trials of Rosalie Fish  Seattle Met

Rosalie Fish is double-booked again. Her visit to Bishop Blanchet High School has lasted longer than expected. Any minute now, she’s supposed to hop on yet another Zoom with a college student interviewing her for a research project on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Fish said yes, because she always says yes to these requests. But now a 30-minute speech has stretched into a morning-long trip through a Catholic school’s belated attempts to honor Indigenous cultures. As the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion director leads her down hallways, showing her where Native art has and will soon be displayed, Fish thumbs at her phone between polite glances upward, trying to push back the call. “I don’t even know what I was thinking.”

Earlier that mid-November morning, the University of Washington runner peered above a podium and delivered the narrative that’s made her one of Seattle’s most coveted speakers—and made almost every day a game of schedule-block Jenga. 

It started when she was a senior running track at Muckleshoot Tribal School in 2019. That spring, she raced with a red handprint painted across her face and “MMIW” on her right leg to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Over several days at the Washington Class 1B track meet, she took home state titles in three different events. The enduring image of her mid-stride, countenance coated in the color of blood, was one of a dual champion, on the track and off it. Journalists, brands, and, yes, an undergrad researcher or two have since lined up to hear her personal connection to a crisis long neglected by law enforcement and media.

Bishop Blanchet High School asked her to appear as part of both Native Heritage Week and a broader reckoning with its past. Last year, the private institution just north of Green Lake in Seattle changed a moniker deemed, as a recent Washington law put it, derogatory or discriminatory toward Native communities. The Braves were now the Bears.

Fish didn’t know about the school’s rebrand when she accepted its invitation. Someone alerted her online. She weighed what to do. When she ran against teams in high school with Native mascots, she’d ask their athletes, “So what tribe are you from?” But she was pettier then. And the school’s Legacy Council was making a good-faith effort to build the school’s relationship with local tribes.

In a pair of black jeans and all-white Nikes, she arrived at Bishop Blanchet that morning guarded but open-minded. She wouldn’t whitewash the past, but she wouldn’t accuse anyone of anything, either.

Following a Lakota healing prayer and land acknowledgment, the school’s cross-country coach introduced her with a deference older adults often show the 21-year-old. “This is not meant to sound creepy,” John O’Leary said, “but I’ve been following Rosalie’s career since she was in high school.”

Fish greeted the crowd in Lushootseed before offering her pronouns and tribal ties—Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, and Yakama—in English. Then, slideshow clicker in hand, she started once more into a story that threads her own traumas and triumphs with the intractable problem of violence toward Native women. An account that’s both remarkably candid and more carefully guarded than it may seem.

When she was done, she received an ovation. In the bleachers, a group of junior girls who’d started the assembly exchanging fun facts about everything from hair color prevalence to Donald Trump’s appearance in Home Alone 2 (did you know?) submitted their takes. “That was so good,” one said. A friend in the row below her offered a slight revision, invoking a descriptor that Fish herself uses to describe her experiences. “That,” the girl said, “was really heavy.”

And it wasn’t all of it.

The weight went to her legs first. Staggering from a bathroom at Eastern Washington University, Rosalie Fish clung to her stepsister, Cedar, before her first race at the state track championships in May of 2019.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Running had always lifted the burdens, the trauma. But after covering her left palm in red paint and pressing it to her face for the first time in that bathroom, Fish felt like someone had tied dumbbells to her quads.

The senior at Muckleshoot Tribal School wanted to PR, to break her personal record in the 1,600-meter and the five-minute mark. To do it for her aunt, Alice Ida Looney, who went missing near the Yakama Indian Reservation when Fish was two. The gentle, family-oriented woman never came home; a hunter found her body under a tree in Satus Creek 15 months later. Authorities never landed on a cause of death.

But Fish couldn’t seem to loosen up. Not in warm-ups. Not on the starting line.

She’d finish in 5:15. A letdown, though a whopping 29 seconds ahead of second-place.

Spectators and reporters asked her how it felt to be a state champion. Insignificant, Fish wanted to tell them. Why should anyone care about the result of a track meet when members of her community were still missing? Maybe, as tradition had it, ancestors and spirits could see red and know their suffering wasn’t forgotten. But the symbolism itself wouldn’t bring anyone back.

Unsure if she could continue wearing the paint the rest of the weekend, Fish messaged Jordan Marie Daniel. A month earlier, Daniel had run the Boston Marathon with a handprint to represent Indigenous women and two-spirit people silenced by violence. Fangirling, Fish had DM’d her to see if she could do the same. Daniel offered her blessing and pointers on how to apply (like a stamp) and remove (Burt’s Bees, lots of wipes) the paint.

Now she gave Fish more advice: keep going. She was supposed to feel heavy. For Misty Upham, the Blackfeet actress raised in Auburn and found dead in a ravine there in 2014. For Jackie Salyers, a pregnant Puyallup woman who was shot and killed by a Tacoma police officer in 2016. For Renee Davis, a pregnant Muckleshoot woman shot and killed by law enforcement that year, too.

With the permission of their families, she’d run for each of them in the 800-, 3,200-, and 400-meter races.

At the end of the weekend, Fish draped three gold medals and a silver over a poster. The DIY project displayed photos of the women and descriptions of their disappearances and deaths. Fish set it on a folding chair near the finish line at one point. Gabriel Salina-Kieffer, a runner from Wellpinit High and a member of the Spokane Tribe, donated his medal to the board. Fish cried.

Everyone from The Seattle Times to The Nation to Yahoo! picked up her story in the aftermath. A plea to recognize four women had turned into a much broader call for justice. “She was just wanting to do the right thing for her people,” recalls her former high school coach, Mike Williams, “and then it just exploded.”

By that fall, she was giving a TedxYouth Talk in Seattle. She flew home in between races at Iowa Central Community College, a top cross-country program that allowed her to continue wearing the paint during her team’s run to a national title.

In 2021, Fish transferred to UW. The move represented not only a step up in athletic competition but also a bigger platform for her activism. Seattle’s a hub for research on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and, perhaps not unrelatedly, the metro area with the highest tally of them, per a seminal 2018 report.

Her Washington homecoming has moved her closer to both a cause crucial to the state’s 29 federally recognized tribes and an abundance of platforms to spread the word. But at the same time, Fish has quietly slipped further from the stage that brought her here. As a second fall in Seattle turned to winter, she’d still never worn the red handprint in a race while sporting the purple-and-gold.

 

“Annnnnd we’re underway!”

A pack of Huskies churn forward on low-cut grass as the expanse of Chambers Creek Regional Park swallows a PA announcer’s call. On a chilly Friday in early November, seven University of Washington women try to separate from 242 other stampeding sets of limbs in the six-kilometer NCAA West Regional.

Missing from their ranks: Rosalie Fish. Though the fourth-year runner continues to show up everywhere—a Brooks Running doc, hearings with state legislators, a video Instagrammed by UW’s athletic department at the start of Native American Heritage Month—she’s been MIA at meets this season.

Her speech at Bishop Blanchet the following Friday doesn’t allude to this absence. But after students clear out of the gym, and DEI director Sofia Lopez shows her a lobby where art from Clear Sky Academy will soon hang, Fish mentions she’s recovering from a series of foot injuries. She’s had to follow along from home as her teammates combined to finish third at the West Regional, high enough to qualify for the NCAA championships in Oklahoma the following week. Fish wouldn’t compete there, either.

She’s still scrolling for the undergrad researcher’s contact info as Lopez leads her into the school’s commons. While they wait for students to join them for a discussion over lunch, Lopez asks if Fish wants to stream one of her running playlists. Fish hesitates. “My music is kind of intense. It’s, like, EDM.” She laughs nervously, as if this belies the composed stage presence she’s worked to refine.

Fish’s talks are so candid that it’s easy to forget she still leaves stuff about herself out. The root of her resistance—a rebellious streak—can get lost in her melodious delivery. She was, by her own admission, a “rascal” in high school. Grades weren’t the only reason her coach held her out of a meet once. She could be a little obstinate. 

But Fish recognized, once she was thrust behind microphones and recorders, that she couldn’t be loose with her words. Fair or not, an inaccurate or bitter comment could discredit the movement. With remarkable aplomb, she realized she needed to be an expert. “Rosy has thrived in environments that have continuously placed on her the pressure to be the spokesperson,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, the director of Seattle’s Urban Indian Health Institute.

Echo-Hawk understands as well as anyone that advocates often must pair data with stories to get policy makers to listen; in 2018, she helmed the first attempted count of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Echo-Hawk has helped Fish verify stats since they met at an awards reception. Last spring, the two also shared a stage with Jordan Marie Daniel at UW for a public lecture. It was the day before Washington announced a first-of-its-kind Amber Alert–like system for missing Indigenous people. Fish and Echo-Hawk, a member of the state’s new MMIW task force, had backed it during public hearings. They pushed for a new cold case unit too.

Students and faculty at Bishop Blanchet wrap up a lesson on this new legislation before filing in for lunch. One of them asks which Native organizations they should support. Fish mentions the Seattle Indian Health Board and a smaller nonprofit, Mother Nation, that provides everything from rental assistance to traditional healing services. Fish works there three days a week as part of her practicum in UW’s School of Social Work. 

The organization also takes care of her, too. When the body of Mavis Nelson, a Yakama woman, was discovered last year near the Burke-Gilman Trail where Fish regularly runs, the organization treated Fish like a client, connecting her to resources when she was really down. “I know I’m in the right place when I leave work smelling like coffee and sage,” she says.

Eventually, Fish dives into her bread and butter. She cites some of the numbers from Echo-Hawk’s report and details why justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women has been vanishingly rare: the jurisdictional shitshow that has long allowed non-Natives to perpetrate crimes on reservations with impunity, the disbelief embedded in the legal system that ultimately silences victims’ claims.

The conversation widens to other forms of erasure. A student mentions that history classes don’t often mention the boarding schools, some connected to the Catholic Church, that sought to assimilate Native children into white culture as recently as 1980. Fish says her great-grandfather went to one and endured sexual abuse. The effects of this harm, she tells the room, have manifested in her family.

Along the White River, several patches of prairie land link diagonally to form the Muckleshoot Reservation. On 4,000 acres about 25 miles south of Seattle, a few thousand tribal members live on plots their ancestors from the Duwamish and Upper Puyallup watersheds fought hard to establish in 1857 after the dubious treaties of Point Elliott and Medicine Creek. A vital water source and, more recently, a major thoroughfare divide the territory. Head the right direction on Auburn Way South and a sublime view of Tahoma, or Mount Rainier, overwhelms the horizon.

Growing up, Rosalie Fish used the mountain to orient herself. Rosy, as her friends and family call her, bounced between her father’s home near the reservation casino and her mother’s in Lake Tapps. Autumn MaGee, a member of Yakama Nation with Muckleshoot heritage, worked as a language revitalization teacher at the tribal school. She introduced her firstborn to traditional Coast Salish songs and brought her to Canoe Journey events.

But for most of her life, Fish attended Auburn public schools, where dancing to Native drumbeats led to racist remarks about teepees and war cries and Pocahontas. During her freshman year at Auburn Riverside High, she also faced harassment as she started exploring her queer identity. Running wasn’t yet an outlet for the sadness and anger she suppressed.

A crisis at home was brewing too. After her parents split when she was little, her mother married a man whose verbal and psychological abuse escalated from there, Fish recalls. He pitted different family members against one another. But MaGee didn’t view the relationship as unhealthy at the time. “I thought I was doing better than my parents,” she says. Only later did she realize how this logic perpetuated a cycle of oppression.

Eventually, between arguments, Fish told her mom she was struggling. MaGee took her to the tribe’s behavioral health services. Shortly thereafter, she was prescribed antidepressants.

But on February 9, 2016, just before her 15th birthday, Fish attempted to take her own life. She’d begun misusing her medication and ended up in the hospital.

MaGee felt like a bad mom. She worried she couldn’t keep her daughter safe at home. For nearly two weeks, Fish stayed in a facility. They released her for her birthday.

Fish told MaGee her actions weren’t about her. Still, Autumn worried. From then on her daughter would attend Muckleshoot Tribal School, where she could keep a closer eye on her. Where Fish would start to run and heal.

A few days before the West Regional, Fish settles into a window seat at Seattle Sunshine Coffee and dishes on what’s really up with her absence from the team’s meets.

She’s just shuttled back to Seattle after a short trip to see her family. She makes the drive south “a little too often” now that she’s in Washington again; her siblings are pretty attached. Games, cultural events, family photos—you name it, she’s there. Fish likes being a sister to them, but, you know, she’s busy. For so long, missing and murdered Indigenous women have been ignored. Now that there’s an opportunity to share their stories, “I want to accept everything,” she says. The stacked blocks on her phone’s calendar would make a CEO wince.

At first she says a scheduling snafu will keep her from cheering on her teammates at Chambers Creek that Friday. But later she illuminates why she hasn’t been racing: Her foot injuries stemmed in part from trying to rush back from a prolonged absence. “I was on medical leave for about eight months.”

In October of 2021, shortly after she started classes at UW, Fish says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. To treat the latter, she started a series of medical trials that lasted longer than anyone expected. Each potential remedy required at least two-week on- and off-ramps, and for a long time, none were working. One hurt her throat so bad she had to go to the ER; another gave her panic attacks when she exercised.

The side effects halted her training in the middle of her greatest athletic challenge yet. While she’d starred at Muckleshoot Tribal School and Iowa Central, she’d never faced Pac-12 competition. A roster like UW’s might boast as many as 20 top runners from around the country. Even on one’s own team, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

As she tested medication after medication, Fish worried her coach would be disappointed she couldn’t race. But the school’s director of track and field and cross-country, Maurica Powell, was “super supportive,” Fish says. During a fall camp session at Suncadia this year, Powell brought along multiple clinical psychologists to talk to the team and sit down with runners one-on-one.

When Mike Dillon, the athletic department’s director of medical services for health and wellness, started at UW 16 years ago, the school didn’t offer any counseling services specifically for its athletes. Now the athletic department contracts multiple therapists through UW Medicine to meet a growing demand for mental health support. Each of the last two years, it’s seen an almost 200 percent increase in student athletes seeking mental health services and counseling, Dillon says.

A society-wide processing of the pandemic explains some of this uptick in visits. But among athletes, Dillon believes Olympians like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps who’ve come forward about their struggles with mental health have led to this “huge shift.”

Fish agrees. At Bishop Blanchet and other talks, she’s seen how opening up about being LGBTQ and a survivor of a mental health crisis resonates with young listeners. “Whenever I express more about my identity,” she says, “I see the people who have that same identity line up.”

Bipolar disorder often develops later in women. By sharing her latest trial, her struggles with its highs and lows, she hopes others her age can see themselves in her. More of them, anyway.

Before visitors can set foot in the gym at Muckleshoot Tribal School, Rosalie Fish appears before them.

In a glass case directly across from the building’s doors, the viral photo of Fish running at the state meet in 2019 sits right in the center. The poster she made of the women she ran for, still draped with her medals, is propped next to it. On a higher shelf, the team’s fourth-place plaque stands alone as the first trophy earned by a girls team here.

The pre-K-through-12 school competes in Class 1B, the division for the smallest schools in Washington. Fish’s graduating class? Twenty-five, give or take. At Muckleshoot, she always participated in multiple sports at once. Cross-country, soccer, basketball, cheerleading, track. They’d basically take anyone.

Though her lineage didn’t suggest athletic prowess or speed, Fish started racking up top-10 finishes her first track season after transferring from Auburn Riverside. Her junior year, she’d collect two state titles. But Fish was a bit of a “brat” then. “Every time I had a defiant thought, it was being said.” As she tried to juggle Running Start courses at Green River College, her GPA fell.

No one had really pushed her until Mike Williams. The longtime coach at Chief Leschi, the Puyallup tribal school, ratcheted up her training and studying regimen when he arrived at Muckleshoot. A white man with an offensive lineman’s build and a drawl from his youth in Arkansas, Williams is a foster parent to a handful of children from the Puyallup and Yakama tribes. He wanted his runners to be their role models.

Fish included. Williams would drop her 10 miles down the nearby Foothills National Recreation Trail and tell her to meet him in the parking lot. He’d have his children track her progress.

They gradually upped her training to almost seven days per week. Even if it was surprisingly hard to find uninterrupted trails and breathing room on a prairie—putting a highway right through it will do that—Fish felt the weight leave her when she ran. And if she was having a bad day, Williams wouldn’t push it. He knew there were still some problems at home. Eventually, after one particularly egregious incident, Fish, her mother, and her stepsister, Cedar, kicked MaGee’s then-husband out of the house.

Cedar, her closest confidant, watched as Fish’s times improved. “It was always a flex to be like, she’s lapping all of these other bitches.” Williams started sending emails to colleges on Fish’s behalf. He heard back in minutes from one coach, Dee Brown, who’d built a powerhouse program in the unlikely locale of Fort Dodge, Iowa.

The “big city” of a rural area regularly attracted runners from places as far-flung as Kenya and Sweden to compete on the cross-country team at Iowa Central Community College. The school had won the past two national titles when Fish committed there in January of 2019. “I didn’t even know where it was on the map,” she says now. But Williams thought it would broaden her world view and minimize distractions from her training.

Running along gravel roads and corn fields, and with nary a mountain in sight, Fish felt homesick almost immediately. She’d help the women’s team win a national championship her first fall and place second in the half-marathon, but Covid would make it a long two years in the Midwest. Still, she trusted Williams. She’d stick it out. Others on the team looked to her as a motherly figure. “One of the things I feel like some of our kids need, and I thought she needed, was to get away,” the coach says. “Kind of like, go away and get strong, and come back so you can serve your people.”

Another crowd’s waiting at a school for Rosalie Fish. This one’s smaller, and they’re not here for a speech. Tonight, on a Tuesday in early December just down the road from the reservation, Fish can just be Rosy.

Her mom has invited her to a culture night for Native communities. After a long slog from Seattle in her red Prius, Fish meets Cedar in the parking lot of Enumclaw High. Her stepsister is basically her alter ego—a pierced, purple-haired truthteller who has none of the polish but all of the love Fish needs.

Walking in, past the cheerleaders practicing formations by a cafeteria table, they find a couple dozen people waiting in an alcove of the dining area. Fish’s family is well-represented: her mom, pregnant with another baby she’ll have a week later; Chad MaGee, Autumn’s husband (whom Rosalie likes a lot); Cayuse, her 13-year-old brother; and Solstice, her four-year-old sister.

On this night they sing and eat and move between tables with teas, essential oils, and beads. Autumn runs the beading station. She’s always worked to preserve her culture, and she likes seeing Rosy doing the same, coming here. The two have reconciled their differences from when Fish was a teen. Autumn knows she got a second chance that some don’t get with a daughter in crisis.

Close as they are, Autumn isn’t sure when Fish will race again. She’d be okay if her daughter never did. She’s told her that. No one’s gone further in their family, Autumn says. No one’s had a greater influence. Around the bend, in a classroom Fish hasn’t seen, students have hung a cut-out of the painted face. And on an adjacent wall, a poster with some of the most venerated women in history—everyone from Harriet Tubman to RBG to AOC—includes Fish.

Fish has agreed to speak at the school soon, school administrators are pleased to say. She doesn’t remember making this commitment. But, you know, she probably said yes at some point. She always does.

At the end of the night, Solstice paws at the pouch of her sister’s hoodie. Rosy has to go back to school, Autumn tells her.

Fish still has at least one more year in Seattle. Last spring, she received a Truman Scholarship, one of only 58 students in the country to nab the up to $30,000 award (UW president Ana Mari Cauce dropped by with balloons to deliver the news). She’ll use it to pursue a master’s degree and a graduate certificate in American Indian studies at UW.

All the while she’ll continue to speak out against injustice in her community. She did so back when she was just an opinionated kid, before her perspective became palatable to journalists and brands and public officials. It irks her that no one listened sooner. “They decided the only way they were going to give a shit or look into missing and murdered Indigenous women is if it was attached to a high school runner.” It shouldn’t have taken a painted face for society to recognize the blood on its hands.

Fish plans to run for the Huskies next year, as 2020 gave all NCAA athletes an extra year of eligibility. On the eve of the winter track season, she wasn’t sure when she’d be back in uniform exactly; representatives from UW wondered the same. But her latest medication for bipolar disorder was working. She could keep training and, at the same time, lighten her mental load.

Running has helped her endure, so she’s going to hang onto it as long as she can. Even if it’s just a community race, she’ll still aim to PR, still apply the paint. A cousin of hers remains missing. She won’t disappear.


If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.