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Washington is 2nd in the U.S. for missing and murdered Indigenous women; have recent efforts made headway?

Missing and murdered Indigenous people: ‘This crisis extends beyond reservations, beyond state borders’

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:14am
7 Photos
Red dresses representing murdered and missing Indigenous women hang from trees outside the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Health &amp; Human Services office in Hazel Dell on May 3. May is Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Awareness Month.
Red dresses representing murdered and missing Indigenous women hang from trees outside the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Health & Human Services office in Hazel Dell on May 3. May is Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Awareness Month. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Julian C. Ankney of the Nez Perce Tribe heard stories since she was a child that Indigenous people go missing at higher rates. The statistics showed Indigenous people go missing at a rate 10 times the national average. In 2018, Ankney’s then-26-year-old brother vanished from an Idaho mall.

Ankney, campus director of Native American programs at Washington State University Vancouver, has yet to reunite with her brother, despite her family’s enduring search.

Indigenous people go missing and are murdered at higher rates than any other group. In Washington, Indigenous people make up 2 percent of the general population but account for 5 percent of unsolved cases. Washington ranks second highest in the nation for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Although Washington has created a state task force and an alert system, advocates say justice remains out of reach for victims and their families. Obstacles include lack of data, tribal jurisdictions and the lingering impacts of colonization.

Did you know?

Reporting missing persons: There is no federal or state law that requires a wait period to report a missing person, Washington State Patrol Tribal Liaison Dawn Pullin said.

On the web

To learn more about Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s Pathways to Healing program, visit: www.cowlitz.org/pathways-healing

To activate the alerts, visit: www.wsp.wa.gov/crime/alerts-missing-persons

“This crisis extends beyond reservations, beyond state borders,” Ankney said. “This is a community problem that impacts every community and will take the support of multiple governments, agencies working together.”

Invisible crisis

Indigenous people have been going missing and getting murdered since colonial contact.

“This is something that’s been going on since 1492. The root cause is colonization,” Vancouver activist Duana Ricks-Johnson said. “Sacagawea — while celebrated — was only 12 when she was married. She is one of our first documented missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

Indigenous people have suffered trauma from colonization, displacement and cultural assimilation for centuries. These socioeconomic disparities can amplify the likelihood of Indigenous people being victims of violence and exploitation, Ricks-Johnson said.

Indigenous people in Washington experience high rates of homelessness, sex trafficking, incarceration and child welfare referrals. According to the FBI, 40 percent of victims of sex trafficking are Native. Ricks-Johnson said she was a victim of sex trafficking after being targeted as an Indigenous person living in poverty.

“It’s all a very slippery slope,” Ricks-Johnson said.

Many cases go unreported and undocumented. Of 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women and girls reported to the National Crime Information Center in 2016, only 116 were logged in the Justice Department’s missing persons database, according to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Finding relatives

Southwest Washington’s Cowlitz Indian Tribe has been working to trace the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous people, many of whom didn’t have tribal affiliation listed. The tribe’s office in Hazel Dell recently displayed a memorial honoring the lives of eight people affiliated with the tribe. One is missing and seven were murdered.

“We started asking ourselves, there’s all this data out there that says there’s murdered and missing Indigenous people,” said Debbie Hassler, the tribe’s deputy director of health and human services. “But the question I always had was: ‘Where are they from?’”

The tribe offers a program called Pathways to Healing, which provides services to families impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking or elder abuse. Through the program, the tribe also began asking members if they had a loved one who was missing or murdered.

“There was an outpouring of support with people coming forward with names to add to the list. It was extremely overwhelming,” Hassler said. “I think in a good way, in the sense that we’re able to honor these Cowlitz tribal members, but also in a frustrating way, because there’s people to add to the list.”

Luckily, some people have been removed from the list because they were found, Hassler said. That includes the first person to be listed, who was found after nearly 20 years. But other names remain, including Misty Copsey.

Misty, then 14, was last seen walking to her family’s residence near Tacoma in September 1992 after missing the last bus from the Puyallup fairgrounds, where she had spent the day. Misty was a hardworking student and a conscientious teenager, according to the Charley Project, which profiles missing people.

Her case remains unsolved. Misty’s mother died in 2020 without knowing what happened to her daughter.

“Part of the frustration is that missing people who are Indigenous … are often not labeled as an Indigenous person,” Hassler said. “If they are, they probably aren’t labeled as a certain tribal member.”

Misty’s missing-person posters say that she is Caucasian, said Hassler.

“It doesn’t give us a chance to really look at the data and understand really where the epidemic is if people aren’t categorized right by their race or ethnicity,” Hassler said.

Cold cases

Ankney understands the challenges Indigenous people face when loved ones go missing. When her brother Michael Murphy Jr. disappeared, family members first spoke with the local police, which told them to go to the sheriff’s office, which then told them to talk to the Idaho State Police, which ultimately referred the family to the FBI.

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“At first, they wouldn’t take us seriously because he was released from prison two weeks prior. So the police told us he was running from law enforcement,” Ankney said.

Ankney said her family didn’t believe it, because Murphy spoke regularly with their mother.

Six months after Murphy disappeared, the family was finally able to file his official missing-person report.

Indigenous missing person cases often become tangled in a complex web of jurisdictions — tribal, federal and state — that can create gaps in law enforcement and legal protection.

But state officials are working to strengthen partnerships and aid families of missing Indigenous people in Washington. In 2021, the Washington State Patrol launched the Indigenous Peoples Alert System — the first of its kind — to address the crisis of unsolved cases.

In 2023, the State Patrol sent 51 alerts, said Dawn Pullin, the agency’s tribal liaison. Out of those cases, five remain missing, two were found deceased and all others were located.

The patrol activates the alerts on behalf of the law enforcement agency that receives the missing person report.

In 2023, in part at the recommendation of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, the Legislature created and funded an Indigenous Persons Cold Case Unit in the Attorney General’s Office. The team assists and works with federal, municipal, county and tribal law enforcement agencies in solving missing person and cold homicide cases involving those with Indigenous ancestry. It is also the first unit of its kind in the nation.

“This work is important. This work is necessary. Most of all, our missing and murdered relatives need us,” Anna Bean, a Puyallup Tribe council member who serves on the state’s Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force said in a statement for the task force. “This epidemic has to stop.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.