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Feb. 23, 2024

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Justice Department chooses Eastern Washington as focus of effort to solve cases of missing and slain Indigenous people

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WASHINGTON — As part of an effort to address a crisis of missing and slain Native Americans, the Department of Justice is focusing new resources on the Northwest, putting a dedicated prosecutor in Eastern Washington and a coordinator in Oregon.

U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref, the top federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Washington, announced the program June 28. In an interview, she said her office was “thrilled” to be chosen as one of five districts in the nationwide program to prosecute cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people, or MMIP.

“I really wanted Eastern Washington to be a leader in addressing the MMIP crisis,” Waldref said, adding that her team advocated for the new assistant U.S. attorney to join them because of their history of prosecuting homicides and strong relationship with tribal law enforcement agencies on the Yakama, Colville, Spokane and Kalispel reservations.

The Justice Department program, according to a news release, will permanently place one assistant U.S. attorney and one coordinator in each of five regions across the country. Waldref said she expected the Northwest coordinator to travel around the region from a base in Portland, while it wasn’t yet decided whether the prosecutor would be based in Spokane or Yakima.

The problem of missing and murdered Indigenous people — particularly women and girls — is not new, but it has gained attention after years of activism in Native communities. A 2019 study of Indigenous people funded by the National Institute of Justice found that over 84% of women and nearly 82% of men had experienced violence in their lifetimes, while a 2008 study found that in some counties, Native women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.

Margo Hill, a professor at Eastern Washington University, said that when Native Americans are the victims of homicide, kidnapping and other crimes, solving those cases is often hampered by limited resources, complex jurisdictional issues and poor coordination between law enforcement agencies.

Hill, a citizen of the Spokane Tribe and former tribal court judge, said a more engaged Justice Department could help address those problems. That’s especially important in felony cases committed on tribal land, she said, where federal prosecutors generally have jurisdiction.

“I think it’s a great idea — we need help anywhere we can get it,” Hill said. “We have tribal attorneys that advocate for families of murdered and missing Indigenous people, but to have allies in the federal system from Department of Justice, I think that’s great.”

According to the Washington State Patrol, as of July 3 there were 134 Native people reported missing in the state: 33 girls, 19 boys, 37 women and 45 men. Indigenous victims represent 5% of unsolved homicides in Washington, despite Native Americans making up less than 2% of Washington’s population, according to the attorney general’s office.

In making the case to host a dedicated prosecutor in the Eastern District of Washington, Waldref said, “We highlighted both our experience and also the severity of the problem — of homicides that we’re seeing in our district, the Yakama Nation and the Colville Reservation — and our desire to do more to address those issues here.”

Emily Washines, a historian and Yakama Nation member, said violence against Indigenous people has to be understood in the historical context of the United States making laws that barred tribes from defending their own citizens. She pointed to the 1855 rape and murder of Yakama women by gold prospectors, which began the Yakima War when Yakama men killed the prospectors, prompting the U.S. government to retaliate.

“Our first reported case was in 1855, and the U.S. government’s response was a three-year war,” Washines said. “They have never addressed that. They’ve never apologized for that.”

Washines said she sees a parallel in the case of Maddesyn George, a Colville tribal member who was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for killing a man who she said had sexually assaulted her. A judge found her allegation against the man credible, but George pleaded guilty to manslaughter and a drug charge because the killing was not in self-defense.

Waldref, whose office prosecuted George, acknowledged the need to restore trust between Native communities and federal law enforcement.

“Being present on the reservations and building that trust relationship is so important,” she said, “so that witnesses feel comfortable speaking with FBI investigators, speaking with our office, so that we have more viable cases that we can bring forward in federal court.”

The Justice Department’s announcement adds to progress tribes and their allies have made at the state level and in Congress in recent years.

In 2019 and 2020, the Washington State Patrol hired tribal liaisons for Western and Eastern Washington, respectively. In April, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill to create a special unit to investigate cases of missing or slain Native people.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican whose district includes the Yakama Nation and part of the Colville Reservation, introduced legislation Thursday that aims to bolster tribal law enforcement agencies, partly by giving tribal officers access to federal benefits. That bill’s cosponsors include Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor; Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane; and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho Falls.

Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said in a statement that the Parity for Tribal Law Enforcement Act would remove barriers to tribal officers enforcing federal laws on reservations and help retain staff, “which is critical for rural tribes that have large land bases and not enough officers to adequately patrol.”

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