Mar 31, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Washington creates first statewide alert system for missing Indigenous people

Photo of red signs that say "No more stolen sisters, justice for MMIW"

Memorial to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Photo: Michael Siluk/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a bill Thursday to create the U.S.'s first statewide alert system for missing Indigenous people.

The big picture: Native American women experience higher rates of violence than most other women, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in an October report. They are murdered at rates more than 10 times the national average.

How it works: The alert will broadcast information about missing Indigenous women and people on message signs, in highway advisory radio messages, on social media and in press releases to local and regional media.

  • The state currently operates several alert systems, including silver alerts for missing vulnerable people who are oftentimes elderly.
  • Though the alert system covers all missing Indigenous people, the state House report on the legislation notes that "the crisis began as a women’s issue, and it remains primarily a women’s issue."

What they're saying: "The unheard screams of missing and murdered people will be heard across Washington state with the implementation of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) Alert System," state Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D), who sponsored the bill, said in a statement after it passed the legislature earlier this month.

  • "Too many Indigenous mothers, sisters, wives and daughters have been torn from their families and their children raised without mothers. This crisis impacts every one of our families and communities and it takes collaboration among all governing bodies, law enforcement and media to bring awareness and stop these horrific crimes."

The big picture: The actual number of missing Indigenous people is unknown due to problems with underreporting and data collection, jursidictional conflicts and tensions between law enforcement and Indigenous communities.

  • Urban Indian Health Institute Director Abigal Echo-Hawk told PBS Newshour last year that police database systems often default to white if officers do not collect information on race and ethnicity.
  • UHI also found that local police oftentimes dismiss reports due to age-old stereotypes and prejudices, such as believing an Indigenous woman ran off because she was drunk or doing sex work, Echo-Hawk said.
  • Disagreements over who has jursidiction over the case — the federal government, the state or tribal nations — further drag out investigations.
  • Because of these jurisdictional issues, tribal nations often don't have the authority to criminally prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes, even if the crimes happen on their land.

What to watch: Washington state has convened a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force to coordinate a statewide response to the crisis.

  • Interior Secretary Debra Haaland has also established a unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to support investigations into missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that the statement about the crisis being a women's issue came from a state House report, not the legislation.

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