Washington state sets up alert system for missing Natives
Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Thursday signed into law a bill that creates a first statewide alert system for missing Indigenous peoples, to help deal with a silent crisis that has tormented Indian country in the state and throughout the country.
The law sets up a system similar to Amber Alerts and so-called Silver Alerts, which are used for missing children and vulnerable adults respectively in many states. It was led by Democratic Representative Debra Lekanoff, the only Native American lawmaker currently serving in the Washington State Legislature, and championed by Native leaders across the state.
“I am proud to say that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Peoples Alert System was born out of the voice of our Native American leaders,” said Ms. Lekanoff, a Tlingit Tribe member and lead sponsor of the bill. “It’s not just an Indian issue, it’s not just an Indian responsibility. Our sisters, our aunts, our grandmothers are disappearing every day… and it’s been going on for far too long.
Tribal leaders, many of them women, wore traditional hats woven from cedar as they gathered around Governor Inslee for the signing on the Tulalip Reservation, north of Seattle. Then they presented her with a traditional handmade ribbon shirt and several multicolored woven blankets.
The law attempts to address a crisis of missing Indigenous people – particularly women – in Washington and across the United States.
While the law includes missing men, women and children, a summary of public testimony on the legislation notes that “the crisis began as a women’s issue, and it remains primarily a women’s issue.”
In addition to notifying law enforcement when there is a report of a missing Indigenous person, the new alert system will place messages on highway reading signs, on the radio and on social media , and will provide information to the news media.
The legislation was paired with another bill signed Thursday by Governor Inslee that requires county coroners or medical examiners to take steps to identify and notify family members of murdered Natives and return their remains. This new law also establishes two grant funds for Indigenous survivors of human trafficking.
This element of the crisis is significant because, in many cases, murdered Indigenous women are wrongly registered as white or Hispanic by coroners’ offices, never identified, or their remains are never repatriated.
A 2021 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States is unknown due to reporting issues, distrust of law enforcement and conflict. of competence. But Native American women face murder rates nearly three times higher than white women overall — and up to 10 times the national average in some places, according to a 2021 summary of existing National Congress research. American Indians. More than 80% have suffered violence.
In Washington, more than four times as many Native women go missing than white women, according to a study conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle, but many such cases receive little or no attention from the authorities. media.
The signing of the bill began with a traditional welcome song passed down by Harriette Shelton Dover, a beloved cultural leader and storyteller. Ms. Dover recovered and shared many traditions and songs from tribes along Washington’s northern Pacific coast and worked with linguists before her death in 1991 to save her language, Lushootseed, from extinction. The women performed an honor song after the event.
Washington Tulalip Tribes President Teri Gobin said Washington and Montana are the two states with the highest number of missing Native Americans in the United States. Nearly four dozen Native people are currently missing in Seattle alone, she said.
“What’s most important is bringing them home, whether they’ve been trafficked, robbed or murdered,” she said. “It’s a wound that stays open, and it’s something we pray with. [for] each person, we can take them home.
Investigations of missing Indigenous people, especially women, have been plagued with many problems for decades.
When a person goes missing on a reservation, there are often jurisdictional disputes between tribal police and local and state law enforcement. The lack of police personnel and resources and the rural nature of many reserves compound these problems. And often families of tribal members are suspicious of non-Native law enforcement or unsure where to report news of a missing loved one.
An alert system will help alleviate some of these issues by allowing for better communication and coordination between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement and creating a way for law enforcement to report these cases to others. agencies. The law expands the definition of “missing person in danger” to include Indigenous peoples, as well as children and vulnerable adults with disabilities or memory or cognitive problems.
The law comes into force on June 9 and some details are still being worked out. For example, it’s unclear what criteria law enforcement will use to positively identify a missing person as a Native American and how information will be disseminated in rural areas, including some reservations, where highways lack signs. electronic readers – or where there are no highways. at all.
This measure is the latest action taken by Washington to address the issue. The Washington State Missing and Murdered Women and Indigenous Peoples Task Force is working to coordinate a statewide response and held its first meeting in December. Its first report is expected in August.
Many states, from Arizona to Oregon to Wisconsin, have recently taken action to address the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Efforts range from funding better resources for tribal policing to creating new databases specifically targeting missing tribal members. Tribal law enforcement agencies that use Amber Alerts for missing Native children include the Hopi and Las Vegas Paiute.
In California, the Yurok Tribe and the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a Native-led research and advocacy group, have uncovered 18 cases of Native American women missing or killed in the past year or so — a number they consider to be vast undercount.
An estimated 62% of those cases are not listed in state or federal missing persons databases.
The law is already attracting the attention of other states, whose attorneys general have called asking how to pass similar legislation, said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who called the law “truly groundbreaking.”
“Every time you do something for the first time in this country, it’s an added weight,” he said. “It will certainly not be our last reform to ensure that we bring everyone home. … There is so much more work that needs to be done and needs to be done.
This story was reported by the Associated Press. Gillian Flaccus reported from Portland, Oregon.