Leona LeClair Kinsey

September 6, 2018

Leona LeClair Kinsey was a fiercely independent woman who could go pheasant hunting, serve the bird for dinner, then take the leftover feathers and turn them into an artistic gift.

Her daughter, Carolyn DeFord, remembers how they’d also hunt deer, elk and antelope and pick mushrooms and huckleberries near their home in La Grande, Oregon, a rural community in the eastern corner of the state. “She was confident in her ability to not need people to do simple things for her,” DeFord says, recalling how her mother would chop firewood and change her own tires.

Kinsey was 45 when she disappeared from La Grande in October 1999. DeFord believes her mother was likely a victim of foul play at the hands of a man she was supposed to meet who reportedly was a drug dealer. His whereabouts are unknown all these years later. Kinsey had struggled with alcohol and drugs.

A member of the Puyallup Tribe, Kinsey worked as a landscaper, a janitor and a motel housekeeper. She had a quirky sense of humor but also “a very dark and real concept of life,” her daughter recalls. “She knew there were bad men,” and when her mother was in her early 20s, she had a physically abusive relationship.

DeFord was 25 when her mother disappeared, and for nearly a decade, whenever she met someone new, she’d bring her mom up within minutes. “It was like I wore a nametag, ‘Hi, my name is Carolyn. My mom is missing.’”

About 10 years ago, DeFord held a memorial for her mother, telling other mourners that “not a day goes by that I don’t miss her.” In recent years, she has become an activist in the missing and murdered Native American women movement, establishing a Facebook page featuring dozens of cases and reaching out to families to say: ”‘I’m so sorry that you’re on this journey. ... I know the chaos that you’re in right now. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.’”

She is still healing herself, but sharing her mother’s story, DeFord says, has given her purpose and a chance to raise awareness.

“It’s a way to be a voice for women who haven’t found theirs yet.”

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