On April 22, 2012, Nicole Westbrook was shot.
According to a Seattle Times report at the time, the bullet from a passing car went through her left cheek and shattered her spine. Although doctors eventually restored her heartbeat, Westbrook’s brain had been deprived of oxygen. She died.
Westbrook was a Native woman. Her family came to Seattle from a Navajo reservation in New Mexico to say goodbye to her body. Her mother washed and braided her hair.
As Abigail Echo-Hawk told this story to the Civic Development, Public Assets and Native Communities Committee, she dabbed tears from her eyes. A mother of young boys, she knew what it meant to braid their hair, to sing the traditional songs and show them their heritage.
“She braided her hair, and then she buried her daughter,” Echo-Hawk said.
Echo-Hawk was there to present a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), a modern accounting of the epidemic of violence that has rocked Indigenous communities since colonization.
Westbrook was both murdered and missing. Murdered in cold blood outside of her new apartment complex in downtown Seattle just weeks after she’d moved there to start culinary school. Missing because despite The Seattle Times coverage of her death and the weight put on her Native American ancestry, Seattle Police Department records classified her as a White woman.
At least 45 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Seattle, the most of any of the 71 cities covered in UIHI’s report. UIHI found 506 unique cases. The number is almost assuredly an undercount — UIHI uncovered 153 cases that do not appear in the law enforcement records the organization requested.
Councilmember Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet nation and chair of the Civic Development, Public Assets and Native Communities Committee, told Real Change that officials don’t know why Seattle has so many missing or murdered Indigenous women.
“Our large population of Native people may be a factor, it is also possible that our imperfect data collection may be better relative to other cities,” Juarez wrote. “Our Native women may suffer from more violence here than in other places. Until we focus on this problem and improve our data collection, we simply will not know.”
UIHI used public records requests to get information from law enforcement and state and national missing persons databases from 71 cities in 29 states. The organization was limited by time and by resources — it took $20,000 to create the report Echo-Hawk presented on June 5, and $4,000 more would have expanded the dataset by six additional cities.
In addition to public records, UIHI collected media accounts and stories from Native communities. Some, like Westbrook, had their names explicitly included because their deaths had received so much press coverage. Many more were shielded out of respect for families who brought their stories forward.
What they found was shocking, if not surprising.
As many as 506 Native women and girls have been murdered or gone missing in the 71 urban areas in recent decades, a horror that has touched every Native community in the United States. Nationwide, 5,712 Native women were reported missing or murdered in 2016 alone, according to the National Crime Information Center. Only 116 of them were logged in the Department of Justice database, according to the report.
Government isn’t solving this crisis in part because it isn’t collecting the data, causing a catch-22, Echo-Hawk said. The lack of data is used to justify inaction.
“There’s this idea that our stories are meaningless unless we have the numbers,” Echo-Hawk said. “We are not often given the opportunity to gather our own numbers and tell our own stories.”
This isn’t the first time that UIHI has stepped in to fill in gaps in official record keeping. A previous report on sexual assault and violence against Indigenous women showed that nearly all Native women in Seattle had been raped or sexually assaulted at least once in their lives.
“Me being Native is not a risk factor,” Echo-Hawk, herself a survivor of sexual assault, said. “I’m not trying to beat the odds and I don’t want my children and nieces to beat the odds and not be the next woman who was raped. Why aren’t we changing the odds?”
The briefing was held just days after Canada released a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The inquiry clocks in at nearly 1,200 pages and incorporates thousands of interviews with Inuit, Métis and First Nations victims and families describing the violence perpetrated against themselves, their sisters, mothers, aunts and two-spirit friends and relatives.
The report does not shy away from describing the violence as what it is — a genocide.
“[M]any Indigenous people have grown up normalized to violence, while Canadian society shows an appalling apathy to addressing the issue,” the report reads. “The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls finds that this amounts to genocide.”
The inquiry, which took three years to complete, comes with a ream of necessary societal changes that would begin to address the institutional racism that creates and perpetuates violence against Indigenous peoples.
The United States should have something similar, said Esther Lucero, CEO of the Seattle Indian Health Board and UIHI.
“They truly called it a genocide,” Lucero said. “We have to start from that place.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full June 12 - 18 issue.
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