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Indigenous communities get first statewide alert system for missing persons reports – The San Diego Union-Tribune

  • Attorney Daniel Albert

Part of the issue in sufficiently addressing the issue of missing Indigenous people across the country has been in the ways that information about these cases has been collected and recorded, advocates say. Indigenous people, especially women and girls, are more likely to go missing accounting for overall population numbers. Historically, the numbers on record have underreported the magnitude of the problem due to issues that include racial misclassification and incomplete data collection. But with changes to the way this information about missing and murdered Indigenous people is being collected, including in a new alert system in Washington state, advocates expect to see changes that more accurately reflect what’s happening to their communities.
“I am proud to say that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s and People’s Alert System came from the voices of our Native American leaders,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit tribe and the chief sponsor of the bill creating the new alert system, said in a story from The Associated Press. “It’s not just an Indian issue, it’s not just an Indian responsibility. Our sisters, our aunties, our grandmothers are going missing every day … and it’s been going on for far too long.”
Abigial Echo-Hawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board and one of a dozen tribal epidemiological centers in the nation that works to make sure that tribal people living in urban areas in the United States are properly represented in data evaluation and research. The institute has specifically focused on violence against Indigenous women and girls — and the data that has been missing about this group — in order to provide that information to policymakers, tribal leaders, and other advocates to ensure that “the resources, intervention, and prevention efforts flow to our community.”
She took some time to talk about the new statewide alert system in Washington, reportedly the first in the nation, and its significance in more comprehensively responding to the crucial issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the U.S. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: The governor of Washington signed legislation last month that creates a statewide alert system for missing Indigenous people. Did the Urban Indian Health Institute have any role in helping to facilitate the creation of this alert system?
A: Yes, we have continued to work hand-in-hand with members of our state legislature. We work actively with our policymakers to get them the information that they need, and to also ensure that information related to efforts like this are disseminated and information is shared in our communities. So, we worked actively with Rep. Lekanoff to ensure that she got the information and data that was needed in order to advocate and to work with her constituents and folks across the state of Washington to show why this was necessary and needed.
Q: Can you talk about why an alert system specific to Indigenous people is necessary?
A: I co-authored a report titled, “MMIW: We Demand More Effort.” It was very specifically targeted at the state of Washington, basically correcting a report that had been done by the Washington State Patrol that did not do a good job. In it, we found that Native people are four times more likely to go missing in the state of Washington, compared to non-Hispanic Whites. We were able to take a look at notes of more than 10 community meetings held across the state of Washington with tribal leaders on reservations and in urban cities. We were able to see and hear the stories of families who experienced a lack of action from law enforcement when their loved ones went missing, and an inability to have media put their loved ones into the media so they can have assistance in finding them. What we found is that for those who went missing within the state of Washington, often, the families experienced them being completely invisible and were unable to have resources that would assist them in finding their loved ones. As a result of that report, we know that in the state of Washington, and also nationwide, this is a consistent issue. Having an alert system like this, that when a person who has gone missing is identified as Indigenous and they are put in this statewide alert system, we will begin to have coordinated efforts and opportunities for the rest of the community to be engaged in assisting us in finding our loved ones for the very first time. And, for the very first time, we’re going to begin to see elevated visibility of those most likely to go missing within the state of Washington, which is Indigenous peoples.

Q: And are you familiar with how it will function, particularly how it will function in ways that are different from already existing alert systems for missing people?
A: I don’t know the technical infrastructure of it, but what I do know is that we have Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts, as with most states, relating to children and elders, respectively. This one is not going to be age-specific, it’s going to be relating to Indigenous people, generally. They will also be identified as Indigenous people in the alert, so that is going to be new and something that hasn’t happened. This is what equity looks like — taking a look at those most disproportionately impacted (in this situation, as more disproportionately impacted by going missing) and it prioritizes the necessary resources. In this sense, that’s the alert system, to ensure that that disproportionate impact is addressed. That’s the goal with this, is that we’re able to not have it be defined by age, as the Amber and Silver alerts, but it’s rather defined by the impact of being more likely to go missing as an Indigenous person.
Q: Another bill was also signed in Washington last month that requires county coroners and medical examiners in the state to identify and notify family members of murdered Indigenous people and return their remains. This seems to address one of a number of issues around the collection of data for missing and murdered Indigenous people. Your agency’s 2018 report — “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” — talks at length about the process of accessing accurate data in this area. Can you talk a bit about some of the main takeaways from that report?
A: Right now, there are significant issues with racial and ethnic classification. That is, coroners, medical examiners, funeral home directors, those who are classifying race and ethnicity, specifically of murdered individuals, very often don’t ask the families, or they make a decision on that person’s race or ethnicity based on looking at them visually. In doing so, they often misclassify them. In fact, there was a study done on vital statistics some years ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Indian Health Service in a project together, and what they found was almost more than a 40 percent racial misclassification of American Indians and Alaskan Natives in vital statistics records, which include death records. As a result of that, our people are very often misclassified, which skews the numbers on how deeply impacting race and ethnicity is.
In addition to that, law enforcement databases very often were not collecting the race and ethnicity of American Indians and Alaska Natives; it wasn’t even an option. They were often placed in a category called “other,” which basically effectively hides people who aren’t in the little boxes that are given in a database to correctly identify their race and ethnicity. To begin to look at victims of violence, victims who had gone missing, there wasn’t even a box that existed for these folks. The study found an instance in Fargo, N.D., where the system was automatically defaulting to “White” if the race and ethnicity of an individual wasn’t collected, effectively hiding them. So, the numbers that we were able to find, and the numbers that currently exist, are an absolute gross undercount. We have many more people missing and who have been murdered that we simply have not been able to properly account for because of these issues around the data. For tribal nations and villages, the upholding of public safety and assistance with public safety resources, prevention, and intervention, are part of our treaty rights. When we are not able to show the data, or we are not able to show the numbers, that directly impacts whether or not we are getting the correct allocation of resources that are named within our treaties. It actually has an incredible impact on whether or not the U.S. federal government is upholding our treaty rights. It’s an essential part of understanding where the crisis is right now, and how we can begin to address it. Unless we make the changes in the way that data is collected and shared, we’re going to continue to struggle with addressing this crisis.
My team at the Urban Indian Health Institute has a project where we worked with the King County prosecutor’s office here in Seattle, Wash., and we have changed their database system. We have changed the way that their data is collected, the way that it is analyzed, and the way that it is shared, and we have done that in partnership in a true law enforcement reform led by a community organization. We’re beginning to track the implementation of this change in their database and are going to continue to work with them and share how we did this with other law enforcement agencies across the country. When we put out our report [in 2018], too many law enforcement agencies said, “Yes, we understand that this is a problem and we don’t know how to fix it, and we don’t have the resources to fix it,” so we now can show them not only how to do it, but that it’s relatively inexpensive and can easily be done. We’ve taken away that excuse and now I expect to see more action, specifically related to data collection by law enforcement agencies across the United States.
Q: How does having more comprehensive data enable or equip Indigenous communities to better protect women, girls, non-binary, and two-spirit people in their communities?
A: This is the hard part about it: Our communities know our people are going missing and murdered. They know who these people are. It’s not about them having the data because it’s new to them; it’s about us having it in an official way in these database systems that are believed outside of our community. What we often find is people do not believe us when we say our people are going missing and murdered at these incredibly high and disproportionate rates because when law enforcement pulls the data, because of all the issues I just talked about, it doesn’t show what we are actually experiencing. So, when we collect the data, what we are doing is truly representing the impact of these murders, of the trafficking, of these kidnappings. We truly represent the experiences of our communities in the numbers instead of hiding them, so that when our community members come forward with the stories of their loved ones, they also have the data to back it up. It’s about us using it as a tool and, in a sense, as a “Here, it’s in your face, you can no longer ignore us.” It becomes a weapon for us to be able to say, “You can no longer not address what’s happening within our communities.” So, community organizations, grassroots organizers, family members, tribal councils, and urban Indian organizations use the data to say, “You cannot make us invisible anymore.” Then, for the outside community, for those who needed proof, now it’s there and they can no longer ignore it. Those who wanted to be in allyship or work with our communities, it also gives them a tool to say, “Hey, this is happening in Indigenous communities and this is something that we need to address.”
Q: That 2018 report also notes the ways in which media outlets fall short in reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous people — centering reservation-based violence when the majority of Indigenous people live off of reservations, use of violent and/or victim-blaming language, or one-time coverage of cases that happen in their areas. Can you talk about examples of how media perpetuates institutional racism in its coverage?
A: I think a great example of that, very recently, was the Gabby Petito case in Wyoming [the 22-year-old Florida woman who was reported missing in 2021 during a cross-country trip with her fiancé, and whose remains were later found in Wyoming].
I contributed to a report in Wyoming, working with researchers there some months prior to this particular case of Gabby going missing. We’d found more than 700 missing Indigenous people and recent cases in that report. When it was released, it was in a media outlet here and there, but we saw very little action coming from the state of Wyoming. Nor did we see very much action happening across the state in regard to seeing more than 700 Indigenous people going missing or being murdered. Yet, in that state, when one White woman went missing, we saw news outlet after news outlet covering the story. We saw action from the state, we saw action from states that didn’t even have anything to do with it. When I said that this is where we see the disproportionate impact where a White woman’s life matters more than a Native woman’s — and she mattered, Gabby mattered, absolutely. She deserved that coverage, 100 percent. And so did ever other missing Indigenous person who never received it. Folks have often criticized me, saying that there was more to cover [in Petito’s story], that Gabby had videos and was documenting a lot of what she was doing. Well, so were these Indigenous people who went missing. This wasn’t just specific to a White woman. We saw that disproportionate coverage and we saw our Indigenous people who could never imagine that they would get that kind of coverage because it just doesn’t happen. Here’s where we saw, again, the valuing of White women more than the value of Indigenous women and it’s something that has been consistently seen. Unless our people are murdered or go missing in horrific circumstances, such as Savanna Greywind [a 22-year-old pregnant woman who was murdered in 2017, and for whom Savanna’s Act was signed into law in 2020, to help law enforcement track, solve, and prevent crimes against Native Americans, according to the Associated Press], we see very little coverage.
Q: And what would you like to see media outlets do, moving forward, to correct these kinds of harms?
A: We need to see continuous engagement in media coverage and working with some of our organizations, like the Native American Journalists Association. They have put together guiding principles on how to cover and to ensure coverage of stories related to missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. There are resources out there, and we need to see that they’re working with our families and ensuring that their voices are elevated. That media looks at their own coverage, going back and taking a look at maybe a year of their coverage, and looking to see whether they are complicit in this. Were they disproportionately covering White people as compared to people of color? I would say other people of color, too, experience this institutionalized racism within media coverage.
There was a story related to a very young Native woman and her friend who were murdered in a drive-by shooting, and in the coverage related to their murders, it was very often tying them to gang activity and that one of them had spray painted something. That was talked about more than them being a daughter, a loved one, a sister, a community member, a 14-year-old who was going to school. We also need to look at why, when these kinds of murders or missing persons cases happen, why are they being named as a sex worker, as a runaway, as somebody involved in gang activity, instead of seeing them for who they are? A loved one that somebody is missing, that somebody cared about when they are no longer with them. Media needs to look introspectively on the way that they write about and cover their stories, and who those stories are actually for, and whether or not they are complicit in perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices. Or, whether they’re doing what media should be doing, and that is challenging current perceptions and opening up new avenues for understanding. That’s the opportunity media has, if they’re willing to take it.
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