Washington Approves the State’s First-ever Statewide Missing Indigenous People Alert| Latest News!

Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a first-in-the-nation statewide warning system for missing Indigenous people on Thursday, addressing a quiet catastrophe plaguing Indian Country in Washington and nationwide.

The law establishes a system akin to Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts, which are utilised in several states for missing children and elderly people.

It was championed by Indigenous leaders nationwide and led by Democratic Rep. Debra Lekanoff, the state’s lone Native American legislator.

Lekanoff, a Tlingit and the bill’s principal sponsor, said: “I am delighted that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s and People’s Alert System came from our Native American leaders.”

“It’s not only an Indian issue or obligation. Every day, our sisters, aunts, and grandmothers go lost… for far too long.”

Tribal chiefs, many of them women, wore cedar hats to the signing on the Tulalip Reservation, north of Seattle. They then gave him a handmade traditional ribbon blouse and woven blankets in various colours.

The bill seeks to address a national issue of missing Indigenous people, particularly women. However, a summary of public testimony on the measure adds that “the crisis began as a women’s issue, and it continues to be largely a women’s concern”.

The new alert system will also notify the media and post messages on highway reader boards, radio, and social media when an Indigenous person is reported missing.

Inslee, a Democrat, signed another law Thursday requiring county coroners or medical examiners to identify and notify family members of killed Indigenous people and return their remains. It also creates two grant funds for Indigenous survivors of human trafficking.

In many cases, slain Indigenous women are misidentified as white or Hispanic by coroners, and their corpses are never repatriated.

The true number of missing and killed Indigenous women in the US is unknown, according to a neutral Government Accountability Office report from 2021.

The National Congress of American Indians summarised current information in 2021 and found that Native American women face murder rates nearly three times those of white women. More than 80% have been abused.

According to the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle, Indigenous women are four times more likely to go missing than white women in Washington.

The bill signing began with a traditional welcoming song from the cultural leader and storyteller Harriette Shelton Dover. Before her death in 1991, Dover worked with linguists to save her language, Lushootseed. Women sang an honour song afterwards.

According to Teri Gobin of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, Washington and Montana have the most missing Indigenous people. Seattle alone has about 40 Native people missing, she said.

“Bringing them home is crucial, whether they’ve been trafficked, stolen or murdered,” she said. “It’s a wound that stays open, and we can bring them home.”

First-ever Statewide Missing Indigenous People Alert

Decades of challenges have hindered investigations into missing Indigenous people, particularly women.

When someone goes missing on a reserve, there are often jurisdictional issues between tribal, local, and state authorities. The shortage of staff and police resources is exacerbated by many reservations’ rurality.

Many Native families fear non-Native law enforcement or are unsure where to report a lost loved one.

By facilitating improved communication and coordination between the tribe and non-tribal law enforcement, an alert system can help reduce some of those issues.

The statute includes Indigenous peoples, children and adults with impairments, memory or cognitive difficulties as “missing endangered persons.”

Some aspects of the law are still being worked out. Examples include what criteria law enforcement will use to positively identify a missing Native American and how the information will be distributed in rural areas without electronic reader boards or without roadways at all.

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Washington has taken several steps to address the issue. The Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force met for the first time in December to plan a statewide response. It should report in August.

A number of governments have acted to address the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Efforts include bettering tribal police resources and creating new databases for missing tribal members.

The Hopi and Las Vegas Paiute Tribal Police deploy Amber Alerts for missing Indigenous children.

The Yurok Tribe and the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous research and advocacy group, have discovered 18 cases of missing or slain Native American women in California, which they believe is an undercount.

Approximately 62% of those cases are not in state or federal missing person databases.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson described the bill as “truly groundbreaking” and said other states’ attorneys general have phoned to ask how to adopt similar legislation.

“Anything you do for the first time in this country is a huge lift,” he remarked. “This will not be our final reform to ensure everyone returns home. There is so much more to do.”