MISSOULA — In the early hours of March 31, 2023, Mika Westwolf was walking alongside U.S. Highway 93, just north of Arlee, when she was hit by a vehicle and died.
Nine weeks later, the driver who hit Mika still has not been arrested.
Mika's family seeks justice as they share who Mika was and the legacy she is leaving behind.
Carissa Heavy Runner, Mika's mother, sat at a picnic table in Missoula wearing a 'Mika Matters' t-shirt and a pin with her daughter's picture.
To begin, she introduced Mika with her Indigenous name, "Moht-ta-pai-yissaapii, 'everybody looks at her.'”
Mika was Blackfeet, Navajo, Cree, and Klamath.
“Growing up as a kid to a young woman [it] was just always all eyes on her. She just was a good athlete, she was funny, and she made an entrance in a room like, that’s just how she was she was just loud, energetic, happy. She valued family and her culture. She grew up dancing in powwows since she had to walk and have me hold her hand and help her. She danced at powwows all the way 'til middle school,” Heavy Runner detailed.
Mika was loved by many for her compassionate nature.
"Animals loved her, all animals. She just had this kind, like, loving energy about her. I think little kids and animals were just drawn to her. They just loved her no matter what. She would sit down and play with them and she took the time to do that.”
Heavy Runner told MTN News that Mika had a natural curiosity. She would dive deep into subjects she was passionate about; especially when it had to do with the outdoors.
“Later on, [she] found a love for climbing mountains where she made it all the way to Nepal and got to climb the Himalayas there up to almost 16,000 feet. She got to do that on an Indigenous Cultural Exchange. She was one of the four Blackfeet that went over and got to meet the Sherpa people. They got a new climbing school, I believe it was called the Khumbu Climbing School, and so a Blackfeet flag hangs up there now. "
"Mika didn’t want to leave. She loved it. She’s like ‘Their mountains put our mountains to shame, mom!’ that’s what she’d say," she laughed, as she quoted her daughter.
Now, to feel Mika’s presence alive around her, Carissa turns to the high places like the summit of snowy mountains or the tip-top branches of trees.
“Quite a few times... I’d be walking outside or we’d be at the park, I would [turn] around and I wouldn’t see her anywhere. And the next thing, I’d hear her laughing and she’d be way up into the tree or at the top of a swing set sitting on top just hanging there. I’d tease her and call her a little monkey. She was just strong, a strong little girl.
"Even as old as she was just recently too, I have a picture of her with her cousins, they went to a playground in the evening and they’re sitting on the swings and Mika’s sitting at the very top of the swing set.”
Heavy Runner also seeks comfort in Mika's journals.
The pages are full of affirmations, 'do something nice for someone else', 'forgive yourself', and 'give yourself a compliment', were just a few Heavy Runner named. Mika also wrote poetry, and about her experiences day-to-day and as an Indigenous woman.
One poem of Mika's was read by Heavy Runner at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) event at the University of Montana in early May.
By sharing Mika's work, Heavy Runner hopes that it could help other young Native women. She is also using her voice to make sure that Mika is not a forgotten number in the MMIW crisis.
Heavy Runner shared, “I grew up hearing of women missing or guys being killed. And it’s not nothing new. Everyone, everywhere else in the world — to them, it’s shocking probably to hear this. She’s just another, you know, person that had to fall under this statistic now, my daughter, and so that’s what we wanna change.”
That's why Heavy Runner and her family started Mika Matters, an organization to bring justice for Mika and other Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.
“Being in this position, I can see why things like this continue and why it gets swept under the rug. I can easily see and I’m already thinking of like how — could make a guidebook or something, I hate to even say that but for it’s serious, it is a serious matter where families don’t know, you’re in shock.”
“One family it took a year for them, for it to even get investigated. And so that’s what I wanna do with Mika’s awareness is help give light to other families and even helping them along the way to get justice,” she explained.
The Mika Matters organization is planning an MMIP walk. It will begin in Arlee on June 13, 2023, and end at the Lake County Courthouse in Polson on June 16. Along the way, participants will stop at the sites of Highway 93 fatalities for prayer and to honor those who were tragically killed.
For more information, click here to visit the Mika Matters website.
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