After years of grassroots activism by Indigenous women and communities, Washington state has begun taking action to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people (MMIWP). Advocates say that the crisis is an extension of centuries of genocidal policies against Indigenous nations and people.
The state Attorney General’s Office (AGO) convened a task force to address the MMIWP crisis in December 2021 after receiving funding through a budget proviso from the state legislature. This task force released a number of proposals for policy changes, some of which have already been implemented. This includes the addition of liaisons between Tribal police and the Washington State Patrol (WSP), as well as an alert system that notifies Washington residents when an Indigenous person goes missing to help families find their loved ones.
According to a 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, Washington has the second-highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country, after New Mexico. The institute also found that Seattle has the highest number of cases of any city.
State Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Anacortes), who is the only Native woman serving in the state House, has long championed addressing the MMIWP crisis. In addition to serving on the task force, Lekanoff has sponsored multiple bills, including House Bill (HB) 1725, which was passed in 2022 and authorized the establishment of the WSP alert system.
This year, she is sponsoring HB 1177, which would create a cold case unit in the AGO to investigate MMIWP cases and help bring families some resolution. According to the AGO, Indigenous people make up 5 percent of all unresolved cases in the state, despite being less than 2 percent of the overall population.
Annie Forsman-Adams, a policy analyst with the AGO who works on the task force, said that the group released a preliminary report in August 2022 detailing 10 unanimously agreed-upon recommendations for policy changes to address the crisis. One of these recommendations was the cold case unit, which the members of the task force said would help provide additional resources to law enforcement and assistance to families of people whose cases remain unsolved.
The task force is expected to release a second report in 2023. Its members hope it will be extended to 2025 by the state legislature so it can continue its work.
“The idea really came directly from the community, with their advocacy,” Forsman-Adams said. “We really tried to take our direction from what community and impacted family members have said they need to see.”
MMIWP is not a new issue, Lekanoff said.
“Over 165 years ago, the very first report of a missing and murdered Indigenous woman that was submitted to the United States of America was done from a member of the Yakama Nation,” Lekanoff said. “Since then, it has continued to be part of that historical trauma of destroying Native Americans, terminating Native Americans and just the way that America has treated Native Americans within our own country.”
“Native American women are four times more likely to be missing or murdered than a Caucasian woman,” she said.
Roxanne White, a longtime organizer who is the executive director and founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, People & Families, said that actions being taken by government officials and task forces have only been made possible due to the calls of the family- and survivor-led movement.
“MMIWP has been around since the first point of contact, and it’s always been a grassroots-led movement within the Native community,” White said. “So even though we didn’t have an acronym for it, I think that Native people — we’ve always had to rely upon ourselves and speak up against oppression, racism and inequality. And we’ve always had to fight for human rights.”
The Missing Indigenous Persons Alert (MIPA) system is already seeing some success in helping locate Indigenous people who are reported missing, said WSP Director of Communications Chris Loftis.
The system, which launched on July 1, 2022, is the first of its kind in North America. It’s similar to the state’s three other missing people alert systems, such as the Amber Alert, which is meant to help locate missing children. When a local law enforcement agency notifies the WSP of a missing Indigenous person, the state patrol then posts a public notice and sends the alert to the media and people who sign up for text notifications. If vehicles are involved in the case, Washington Department of Transportation also posts the alert to highway reader boards.
MIPA was activated 33 times between July 1, 2022, and Jan. 10, 2023. In 27 of those cases, missing people were located, four of which are directly attributable to the alert system. One person was found deceased, and five cases are still active, Loftis said.
MIPA has also helped raise awareness of the importance of the MMIWP crisis, Loftis said.
“I think [MIPA] has made a larger public aware that some of our brothers and sisters are especially vulnerable and we thus need to be especially vigilant and apply the resources,” Loftis said. He also argued that the existence of the new alert system will help deter potential perpetrators, who now know that more eyes will be looking out for the victims.
However, White said that while MIPA has seen success, the voluntary requirement for police and local law enforcement to cooperate with the WSP limits its effectiveness.
“This is something that law enforcement has to want to do,” she said. “And that, I think, was always a problem for me with this specific bill.”
White called upon lawmakers to strengthen the system and require mandatory participation from all law enforcement agencies.
Still, despite the problems, Lekanoff said that the recent progress in policy areas such as MIPA is helping Indigenous women and people know that their community and the wider public care about them and the MMIWP crisis.
“Now, we as Native Americans know that if one of our sisters, aunties, daughters go missing — we’re not at home knowing that we’re forgotten and no one cares that we go missing or that they’ve been murdered,” Lekanoff said. “Now that message goes across Washington state, and every Washingtonian then becomes someone who’s helping my family find and address the situation of a missing and murdered Indigenous woman.
“Native Americans now matter; Native Americans’ historical trauma, MMIW, is being shared throughout homes,” she said. “You are no longer alone. As a mother, as a father, as a grandmother, as a grandfather, as an uncle, as a sister: we’re all out there searching together.”
White, Lekanoff and Forsman-Adams all agreed that more resources need to be invested in Indigenous communities to help prevent more tragic MMIWP cases. However, White questioned why money was going to the task force instead of aiding families and survivors directly.
“Funding to help families, funding for searches, funding for funerals, funding for memorials, funding for headstones — all these things that the task force is utilizing, they’re asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and yet Native families and communities and impacted survivors are struggling, while the government’s constantly using MMIW to receive funds,” White said. “But those that have been first and foremost impacted are still struggling on just how they’re going to pay their phone bill, how they’re going to pay their light bill, how they’re going to pay their rent.”
White invited community members to donate directly to affected families to support these needs. The next MMIWP day of action is scheduled to take place on May 6.
Members of the public can go to the WSP website to find out about active MIPA alerts and subscribe to notifications. They can also report tips to the Missing & Unidentified Persons Unit at 1-800-543-5678 or [email protected]
Read more of the Jan. 18-24, 2023 issue.