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News / Northwest

Bills in Washington Legislature target missing Indigenous people

Native women disproportionately affected by violence

By Sarah Kahle, The Seattle Times
Published: January 18, 2022, 6:02am

SEATTLE — The House Public Safety Committee heard testimony Friday on two bills that would address the current crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

House Bill 1571 would increase communications between county officials and the families of missing Indigenous people while also providing grants to aid human trafficking survivors’ rehabilitation efforts.

House Bill 1725, sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the state’s only Indigenous legislator, would create an emergency alert designation specifically for missing and endangered Indigenous people.

The bills, meant to update a previous measure passed in 2018, come after years of grassroots activism and data analysis by native researchers. The measures aim to address a deadly trend where more and more Indigenous women are being disproportionately affected by violence and 128 women are reported missing in 71 urban centers.

“This issue has been brought to the forefront by families and by survivors who are sharing their stories and their lived experiences, and policy and legislation should remain focused and centered on those families and their experiences moving forward,” said Carolyn DeFord, a member of the Puyallup tribe and an advocate for families of missing persons.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement started among First Nations people in Canada and has since spread to the U.S., raising awareness for the disproportionately high rates of abduction and murder that Indigenous women and girls face.

A snapshot of data from 71 urban cities in the United States found that murder was the third leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Native women, according to a 2016 report by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute.

HB 1571, sponsored by Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, would require county coroners to identify and notify the family of a deceased missing Indigenous person, allowing them access to their loved one’s remains to conduct spiritual practices or ceremonies. The bill sets aside funds for centers to provide long-term shelter, mental health counseling, medical care and legal services for survivors of trafficking.

The other bill in the House, HB 1725 would create a new alert designation similar to the Amber Alert and Silver Alert systems. It would help connect law enforcement, state agencies and media outlets in the search for abducted children and missing seniors.

The two bills head to committee votes this week, and are expected to have bipartisan support.