Interstate 5 is a typical “sad highway” in America, said Duana Johnson of Vancouver. It’s a corridor where Indigenous women and girls who have been lured, duped, entrapped or outright kidnapped are frequently trafficked, she said.
There are more of those highways than most people think, and they don’t just traverse Indian reservations, Johnson said.
Sex trafficking and violence against tribal women “isn’t just a reservation problem. It’s an urban problem. It’s an everywhere problem,” said Johnson, the lead administrator of a startup organization called Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA and an enrolled member of the Lakes Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
It’s a problem even in small towns like Ridgefield, she said, which is where a documentary film screening and follow-up discussion with Johnson and Karyn Kameroff of the Cowlitz Tribe is set for 7 p.m. Saturday at the Old Liberty Theater.
The film, “Bring Her Home,” explores a formerly hidden crisis whose growing visibility has earned it an uppercase acronym — MMIW, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women — and a surge of new interest from grassroots groups and law enforcement agencies on every level.
Washington is on the forefront of that effort with a new public alert system (similar to Amber and Silver alerts) recently signed into law that will spread the word about missing Indigenous people in real time, Johnson said.
Washington is also the state with the second-highest number of open, ongoing MMIW cases, she said: 132 of them, according to a Washington State Patrol database that’s open to the public at www.wsp.wa.gov/crime/alerts-missing-persons/missing-indigenous-persons.
While many of those people were reported missing by local police in towns like Colville and Yakima near reservations, many also were reported by law enforcement in urban centers like Seattle, its neighboring cities and King County. (One Indigenous person is currently reported as missing by the Vancouver Police Department.)
The State Patrol database represents a fraction of the real number of Indigenous women actually missing in Washington, Johnson said.
For a host of reasons, the problem is vastly underreported, she said. Reservations and rural areas remain underserved by internet and even telephone service, hobbling crime reporting and data gathering. Law enforcement has a long history of misunderstanding and not tracking tribal missing-women cases, as well as misidentifying victims whose ethnicity isn’t obvious and whose family names may be confusing or misleading. Much data is either deeply buried or simply doesn’t exist.
When the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute asked 71 urban police departments across the nation for MMIW data, just 40 percent eventually complied.
“Nearly two-thirds of all agencies surveyed either did not provide data or provided partial data with significant compromises,” the Institute’s final 2018 report on urban MMIW noted.
Law enforcement is also hobbled by overlapping or conflicting jurisdictions, Johnson said. Because Indian reservations are sovereign, self-governing lands, the role and responsibility of federal, state, local and tribal police and courts is often unclear.
According to “Bring Her Home,” Indigenous women make up just 1 percent of the U.S. population, but they’re murdered at 10 times the national average.
Why? Because of a complicated web of factors that all trace back to poverty and history, Johnson said.
“It’s been happening since 1492,” she said.
In the film, South Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo points out that violence against women and the disappearance of women has always been especially damaging to matrilineal cultures — that is, ones traditionally led by women that trace relationships along the mother’s side of the family instead of the father’s.
“They’re the glue to the family,” Buffalo says. “When a woman goes missing it completely ends the lifeline for a clan to continue. It’s a big deal.”
Buffalo got involved in the issue after a young mother went missing in Fargo, N.D., and police didn’t seem to care, she explains.
“We saw the justice system fail our community,” she says.
The film illustrates how families often take the lead in tracking down their missing loved ones.
“My grandmother was kidnapped when I was 9 years old,” Angela Two Stars of South Dakota says in the film. “Kind of created fear in me as a child because, you know, you could be taken.”
Two Stars describes going on snowy car expeditions with her father to try to find what had become of her vanished grandmother.
“He pulled off on the side of the road and walked out into the woods. I remember watching him disappear into the woods and I was scared. … That is the role that families take on when someone goes missing. They go out and search themselves.”
Booted out, lured in
Johnson knew nothing of her tribal origins and culture when she was growing up in north-central Washington, she said. It wasn’t until her own children started asking her questions about their heritage that she started learning about it and developing a cultural pride that helped her heal.
“How can a culture heal itself when it’s broken so you don’t even know your own language?” she said.
Johnson went into the foster-care system, shuffled between different families and then abruptly booted out when she reached legal adulthood, she said. She had no safety net at all.
She was living a life of desperation in Wenatchee when she was lured into prostitution without quite understanding what was happening, she said.
“He was charming,” she said of the man who lured her. “He said what I thought I needed to hear. I got sucked in. They know how to prey on your neediness.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean hunger and homelessness, she added. Young women breaking free of family constraints or testing unfamiliar social scenes — like urban or college life — can be especially vulnerable to being duped and trafficked.
Johnson was living in Spokane when she gathered up her children and fled across the state, she said. She found her way to the Cowlitz Tribe’s Pathways to Healing Program aimed at Indigenous survivors of violence.
Eventually she found work with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, and then with MMIW USA, which is based in Lake Oswego, Ore., and one of many similar sister agencies that have sprung up around the nation.
MMIW agencies work directly with families who are searching for or grieving lost loved ones. When they’re located alive, MMIW USA or a sister local agency works to support their return to family or therapeutic services that are often tribally based, like the Cowlitz Pathways to Healing program.
When they’re found deceased — as happens too often — MMIW agencies help with family support and funeral expenses.
“That is the hardest thing we do,” Johnson said.
The help she offers others helps her too, she said.
“Helping women who are possibly going through the same thing I went through and letting them know they’re not alone — this is healing work for me,” she said. “I am not just a story of what happened to me. I was a victim and now I’m a survivor. Just try to shut me up. It ain’t gonna happen.”