TOPPENISH, Wash. — They already know that stemming the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women is daunting. They are well aware of the grim toll it has taken, because many have lost loved ones and friends.
“As you look around us today, we all stand here as statistics,” said Charlene Tillequots, a member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Committee, during a community meeting Monday in the events center of Legends Casino.
More than 200 people attended the daylong event about the issue. It was the latest of several happening around the state as a result of state House Bill 2951, which requires the Washington State Patrol to work with the Office of Indian Affairs, federally recognized tribes, tribal and other law enforcement and tribal leaders to determine how to increase reporting and investigation of missing Native American women.
The legislation also requires the state to collect data on the numbers of missing Native women.
In leading the meeting, Davis Washines, Yakama Nation General Council chairman, noted that officials involved wanted to focus on barriers and potential solutions.
Several people spoke with emotion throughout the day, and leaders stressed that counselors were there to listen and help. Among those attending and speaking were several representatives of Yakama Nation Behavioral Health and its Victim Resource Program.
Craig Bill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, has been leading the meetings around the state with State Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander, who is the agency’s legislative liaison. The State Patrol must report the results of its study to the Legislature by June 1.
Alexander and state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, who sponsored the legislation, could not attend Monday as both were at the Capitol for the first day of the legislative session.
There’s a “significant crisis of underreporting,” Bill said. Improving that is key to efforts to address a decades-old issue of violence against Native women.
“How do we increase our reporting? It really showcases, again, the need to partner,” he said. “How do we strengthen our community engagement with our law enforcement?
“It’s really community-driven. It’s tribally driven,” he said. “This is one step. We know that there’s a long journey.”
No one knows exactly how many Native girls and women have gone missing on or near the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation. Many cases of missing people or mysterious deaths of women and men remain unsolved. During a two-year FBI investigation spurred by rumors of a serial killer, investigators found as many as 32 cases dating back to 1980.
One of the goals is to establish partnerships and relationships among law enforcement, Washines said.
Yakama Nation Police Commissioner James Shike and others from the Yakama Nation Police Department attended, as did officers from the Toppenish and Wapato police departments and the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office. They noted good working relationships and pledged to continue working together in the future.
Others included Sheriff Robert Udell, Yakima County Coroner James Curtice and Robert Thompson, senior investigator/analyst for the Washington Attorney General’s office.
“You’ve seen the need for this database we’re putting together. The barriers are many. Jurisdiction is a main barrier — who can share information with whom and how it can be shared,” said Esther Moses-Hyipeer, a member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Committee.
“How we do that is key.”
Making a report
Those leading the meeting wanted to hear what challenges people face when reporting missing loved ones and possible solutions; and what types of activities, educational programs, trainings and more people would like to see in the community.
Making a report as soon it’s clear that a loved one is missing is important, authorities said. Shike encouraged the public to report missing persons quickly.
“All of these reports will be taken seriously and investigated immediately,” he said, noting his direct number: 509-865-2933, extension 4191. “All information is helpful.”
Tribal police are striving to improve communication, Shike said, noting that the department has three female officers to take sensitive reports and will work with the Victim Resource Program so a family advocate can be present if necessary. People should feel free to contact detectives any time, he said.
“If you have a problem getting ahold of our detectives, call me,” Shike said, also noting that his department plans to offer an anonymous tip line and rewards for tips.
Lottie Sam, another committee member, is also chairwoman of the Yakama Nation Law & Order Committee. She joined Shike in encouraging people to make a missing persons report.
“Come forward and make that report,” Sam said. “File reports to establish that communication.”
As demonstrated by a recent and potentially terrible situation, the quicker there is a response, the faster authorities can address situations.
“In the late hours over the weekend, I received information that there was a potential abduction,” said JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation. “I contacted our law enforcement ... and that girl was found.
“It turned out that she had run away, snuck away from her guardian. It was not the first time, and that was unfortunate. I asked myself, ‘What kind of preventative measures can be put in place?’”
Goudy is pleased that awareness has gotten to this level, he said.
“I’m a son; I have a mother. I’m a grandson. I’m a nephew. I am a brother; I have a sister who passed. I’m a father; I have a daughter,” Goudy said. “As we look at this, we as Yakamas, we wish to address the caretaking of our women. We wish to protect them. What prevents us from doing so? ... Ensure that they are loved, that they are cared for, they are protected.”
While data and reports are important, people want to see action and results, stressed Athena Sanchey-Yallup, committee chairwoman.
They want to move forward and prevent having this as a norm. Among the efforts to do so, Washines urged those attending to contact their legislators — national and state — for results.
“Let’s keep their feet to the fire,” he said. You can contact our senators, also our congressional representatives,” he said.