Missing indigenous women spotlighted by Washington bill

(Ted S. Warren | The Associated Press) Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, lower right, signs a bill into law, Wednesday, April 24, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The bill creates liaison positions within the Washington State Patrol, and requires the agency to develop best practices in hopes of reducing disproportionate rates of violence faced by Native American and indigenous women, and also the frequency with which perpetrators of the crimes avoid justice. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Olympia, Wash. • A growing number of missing and murdered Native American women are the focus of a Washington bill signed into law Wednesday amid concerns the victims’ cases are slipping between jurisdictional gaps.

Taking aim at confusion stemming from overlapping law enforcement boundaries and other factors, the bill creates a pair of liaison positions within the state patrol and requires the agency to develop best practices for handling the cases.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill in a brief ceremony at the state Capitol, accompanied by banging drums and a loud cheer. The legislation also requires training for the state police in government relations with tribes.

The measure comes amid growing national awareness of the disproportionate rates of Native American women who are victims of sexual assault, and concerns over a growing number of missing person cases in tribal communities.

"This is not a Washington problem, it's a nationwide problem," said Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, the Goldendale Republican who sponsored the bill, after the signing. "It breaks my heart, not just for the family members, but that we didn't do something long ago."

The measure builds on a 2018 law also sponsored by Mosbrucker that boosts data collection and tracking of cases around the state.

A report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, a federally funded nonprofit, ranked Washington second among states by number of cases overall.

The report identified some 500 missing persons and homicide cases involving Native American women in 71 cities after reviewing data obtained through media reports and public records requests sent to police departments.

In total, Annita Lucchesi, a cartographer and author of the report, has a list of some 2,700 names from the United States and Canada. While the cases date back to the 1940s, roughly two-thirds were from the past eight years, according Lucchesi told The Associated Press last year.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, another co-author, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the report's figures almost certainly represented an undercount, and that the group had found cases that were improperly classified by police.

Often going unsolved, investigations into the deaths and disappearances of Native American women can be hampered by jurisdictional obstacles. Tribal police and Bureau of Indian Affairs officers' authority often overlaps with that of local law enforcement, while the FBI is responsible for investigating murders and other major crimes on reservations.

Tribal authorities have limited ability to prosecute non-tribal members, while larger agencies or off-reservation local police are sometimes perceived as not taking the cases seriously.

Socio-economic factors can also play a role, with cases on rural, economically-disadvantaged reservations not drawing the same attention from media and being associated with stereotypes about Native American women.

"We've heard reports of families calling and saying their girls are missing, and the police saying, 'Well, they probably ran away,'" said Echo-Hawk, who described herself as a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. "There's an assumption that it's our fault that we've gone missing or been murdered."

A 2016 report from the US Inspector General reflects shortcomings on the part of federal authorities, despite changes in federal law.

A 2010 federal measure, the Tribal Law and Order Act, required federal authorities to provide legal and investigative assistance and training to tribes, but the Inspector General found the Department of Justice hadn't prioritized it.

Instead, the report found that overall resources from the Justice Department, which oversees the FBI and is charged with prosecuting serious crimes on reservations, had actually decreased.

And while the 2010 law required the DOJ collect data on reservation crime, the 2017 report found the agency's data collection to be "so outdated and incomplete as to be virtually useless."

At the Wednesday signing, tribal activist Earth-Feather Sovereign was realistic about progress at the federal level, but said she hoped that the bill would benefit families in the state.

A member of the Coleville Confederated Tribes who worked with Mosbrucker to draft the bill, Sovereign pointed in particular to the liaisons.

The liaisons will be stationed on the eastern and western sides of the state, and will have a basic understanding of tribal history and culture — the bill requires them to have "significant experience living in tribal or urban indigenous communities."

That will increase trust with Native American communities, said Sovereign, creating “a better understanding that the state does take this issue seriously.”