Native Americans make up about 2 percent of Washington’s population, but statistics show that indigenous women face a peril that exceeds their slice of the population.
A recent report from the Washington State Patrol shows that Native American women account for 7 percent of the state’s reported missing women. And a study last year from the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Washington has the second-highest total among the states of missing or murdered indigenous women.
Still, the issue is not unique to Washington. Because of poor coordination between law enforcement, mistrust of authority that leads to underreporting, a lack of attention from the media, and a variety of other reasons, the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women has long been a blight on this nation.
Washington has taken steps to begin addressing the issue. A law passed in 2018 enhances data collection and the tracking of cases, and a bill signed this year by Gov. Jay Inslee is designed to improve communication between tribal leaders and various state agencies. Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, who has led the push in the Legislature, said: “This is not a Washington problem, it’s a nationwide problem. It breaks my heart, not just for the family members, but that we didn’t do something long ago.”
At a meeting in Yakima in May, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, heard stories of family members who have been missing for years or decades. “It was surprising to me to learn what has been happening here over the last 150 years,” Newhouse said, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic. “Longer than that,” a tribal member responded.
Allowing cases to linger and failing to bring perpetrators to justice emboldens those who would commit violence in their community. As a legal maxim says, justice delayed is justice denied, which indicates that efforts to address the issue warrant attention.
In Congress, Newhouse has joined with two Democrats to introduce the House version of Savanna’s Act, named for a North Dakota woman who was murdered in 2017. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is among three senators shepherding the bill in that chamber. Among other things, the legislation would require annual consultation between U.S. attorneys and Native American tribes on sexual violence, training for tribal police, and rules for reporting and sharing crime data.
The legislation unanimously passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House, which was then under Republican control. With Democrats now in charge of that chamber, advocates hope prospects for the bill have improved. “It’s almost like people don’t know how to deal with this issue,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. and a member of the Laguna Pueblo people. “This is why we’re pressing to know everything.”
Those efforts, at both the state and national level, aim to correct decades of injustice that tears at the fabric of our communities. A major part of rectifying that is to gather information.
The Washington State Patrol in recent months conducted 12 outreach forums around the state to help identify barriers to the reporting and investigating of disappearances, then compiled a 36-page report. WSP Capt. Monica Alexander said: “We found that we’re maybe not communicating as well as we could.”
In the report, a quote from the Native American Coalition sums up the issue: “Missing and murdered indigenous women have disappeared not once, but three times — in life, in the media and in the data.”
It is time for that to change.