President Biden has declared May 5 to be Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. Though, in the wake of this presidential acknowledgement, Washington State still ranks as one of the highest in the nation for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP).
The Washington State Patrol reported that, as of May 1, Washington State has 142 cases of missing Indigenous individuals, 62 of those cases being juveniles.
Washington State has the second highest number of Missing or Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in the nation. Further, Washington State is the only state with two major cities, Seattle and Tacoma, in the top ten list for the highest MMIWG rates in the nation.
Gabe Minthorn, UWT Tribal Liaison and member of the Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce Tribes, said “MMIWP is something that has been an issue for a long time but is only now beginning to get attention from the public and media. Seattle and Tacoma has some of the highest rates of MMIWP in the country. Social media has been a tool to help let the public know when someone is missing, we have had friends and family have someone missing and social media is where we learned about the missing person first. Native people usually go missing on federal lands, and state and local authority have little or no jurisdiction.”
According to research from the Urban Indian Health Institute, Indigenous women go missing up to four times more often than white women in Washington state. Often, these cases are under-reported or buried in systemic bureaucracy, garnering little to no media attention or public knowledge of the crisis.
Joseph E. Thomas, UWT Senior and member of the Puyallup Tribe, said “Personally, I feel just general awareness helps to some degree. Having it float around, even in the back of someone’s mind, that there is a disproportionate rate of murdered and missing people among Indigenous groups, then I feel it can be approached more readily by society at large as opposed to being seen as a random case that could happen to anyone.”
In an effort to bring light to the alarming numbers of MMIWP in our state, Maria Cantwell, Washington State Senator, wrote in a letter to President Biden, “This data is just a glimpse of the crisis. The Urban Indian Health Institute could not report on all MMIWP cases, and examining this epidemic has suffered from significant underreporting and data misclassification. It is clear the MMIWP crisis in the State of Washington is worse than we can accurately calculate.”
In 2021, the WA State Attorney General’s office comprised a task force to evaluate the systemic factors that impact MMIWP in an effort to better determine how to address and prevent Indigenous individuals from being harmed, or worse.
The task force is composed of 25 individuals who represent Indigenous communities in an institutional and cultural context. Tribal nations and state representatives work in partnership with survivors and families to maintain a clear, focused approach to MMIWP issues, while keeping the work centered in Indigenous values.
In 2022, the task force identified and announced key factors in the systemic and institutional participation of MMIWP. Those factors include:
“Inter-jurisdictional issues creating gaps in communication between families and law enforcement; Cross-jurisdictional rules that limit tribal law enforcement access to valuable investigative tools to combat violence; Racial misclassification of Indigenous people in data; Limited access to service programs for families, who often do not know what services are available to them; and limitations on what survivor service organizations can provide to MMIWP families.”
In August 2022, the task force released their first report, announcing a list of ten recommendations for actionable next steps the governor and the legislature can take to participate in the recovery and prevention of MMIWP cases. Those steps are:
1. Establishing a fully funded MMIWP-focused cold case unit within the Attorney General’s Office
2. Standardizing the use of the National Missing & Unidentified Persons System
3. Expanding the scope of MMIWP data and research to all genders
4. Working with law enforcement agencies to expand coordination
5. Promoting inclusive language
6. Improving communication and transparency in MMIWP cases
7. Updating the Missing Person’s Resource
8. Reducing or waiving fees for MMIWP public events
9. Continuing to support sovereignty and self-determination
10. Extending the MMIWP Task Force timeline through June 30, 2025
*Currently the task force is funded through 2023.
In April 2023, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law the Substitute House Bill 117. This bill created a new cold case unit for MMIWP cases in Washington State. This unit is responsible for investigating and solving MMIWP/MMIWG cases in Washington State that were previously closed due to lack of information or leads.
In a heartfelt message released through the Office of the Attorney General, Anna Bean, Puyallup Tribe council member and MMIWP Task Force Executive Committee Member, said “This work is necessary. Most of all, our missing and murdered relatives need us. That goes for anyone in attendance, listening or reading about this work. Someone needs you, you can help. This epidemic has to stop.”
To offer tips on Indigenous individuals who are missing, please visit https://www.bia.gov/service/mmu/submit-tip-or-case-information Tips can be provided via text, email, or phone call and can be sent in anonymously. To learn more about MMIWP/MMIWG and how you can help, please visit: https://www.missingandmurderedindigenouswomenwashington.org