Law enforcement agencies — tribal, state, local and federal — need to work together and communicate better to accurately assess Washington’s crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and identify potential solutions, a report to the Legislature suggests.

Greater coordination and collaboration among authorities are key, says the 36-page Washington State Patrol Missing & Murdered Native American Women Report, a document nearly a year in the making. It was compiled by Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander as required by 2018 legislation sponsored by state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, and was due Saturday.

One of the report’s main goals was establishing how many Native women are missing in Washington, and in that Alexander faced a daunting task. There are unique barriers to gathering data regarding missing Native American women, she notes. No federal agency has comprehensive data on how many indigenous women are murdered or missing, and numbers vary among multiple databases, not all of which are available to the public.

According to information Alexander provided in her report from the National Crime Information Center, in May the state had 1,802 missing persons. Of those, 56 were missing Native women. She broke that number down by counties; Yakima County had 20 Native women who were missing that month, the highest county total by far. Only King County, with 12, was close.

“It’s heartbreaking to see that nearly half of Washington state’s missing Native women cases are in Yakima County,” said Emily Washines, a Yakama Nation historian, scholar and activist for missing and murdered indigenous women.

Alexander’s report includes other numbers detailed in a May 1 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and Alexander from the Yakama Nation Tribal Council’s missing and murdered indigenous women committee.

“Yakama Nation’s Police Department currently has six unsolved cases involving missing or murdered men and women. We also have 18 historical ‘cold cases’ that remain unsolved,” the letter says.

It’s the first time Washines “has seen those numbers of missing and murdered women reported from our tribe,” she said.

The report “supports and summarizes what we have known since 1855 — our Native women are targeted,” Washines said, referring to the September 1855 rape and murder of a Yakama woman and her children by miners passing through the Wenas Valley on their way to gold fields.

Mosbrucker’s legislation brought the State Patrol together with federally recognized tribes, tribal law enforcement, urban Indian organizations and the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs to study the issue of missing Native women in Washington. It established a task force to gather data and recommend strategies to address the disappearances.

As part of that, the State Patrol and the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs had 10 community outreach meetings throughout the state in late 2018, plus another hosted by the Yakama Nation in mid-January. Information from those gatherings held by Alexander and Craig Bill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs — which ranged in size from half a dozen people to the more than 200 who attended the Oct. 29 meeting at the Yakima Convention Center — figures prominently in the report.

She sent her report to legislators early Friday evening. “This is a beginning. This is truly just the beginning and we are committed to continuing and seeing this through,” she said.

Native women face challenges with regard to safety and success, the report says, and it’s important for authorities to build relationships and establish trust. That is crucial because “Like other Native communities throughout the country, the Yakama Nation is subject to a ‘complex jurisdictional scheme that requires tribal, federal, state and county to work together’ to ensure that those who commit violence against Native women are identified and prevented from causing further harm,” notes the letter from the tribe’s MMIW Committee.

Media coverage is important, the letter says, “not only for general awareness of the issue but also so that the local community is familiar with the faces and details regarding missing individuals.”

The committee’s letter is signed by Athena Sanchey-Yallup, Lottie Sam, Charlene Tillequots and Esther Moses-Hyipeer.

Women at risk

Community education and resources are also important. Some missing and murdered indigenous women have struggled with addiction or mental health issues and have become homeless or put themselves in danger to support themselves, the WSP report says. “Some may be victims of human trafficking and murderous rapists,” it says. “With more community education, support and resources, this problem could be reduced.”

Some of the women don’t feel valued, and relatives feel they have to fight for updates and answers. “There is little to no follow-up from law enforcement to the family members after a report is taken,” according to the report.

Along with communicating with families, sharing data among agencies is key. Not only do numbers vary among multiple databases, those numbers are likely underreported or incorrectly reported, for a variety of reasons. They include families feeling they are not being taken seriously when reporting their missing loved one or being told to come back later, after 48 or 72 hours, or simply turned away.

“Our Native American community doesn’t feel cared about as far as law enforcement goes. To me that’s a huge issue,” Alexander said.

Also, “Tribal members don’t report due to stigma and gossip,” her report said. And identifying ethnicity has been an issue, leading to concern there is data out there that will never be correct.

“There’s so many numbers out there. We’re not all getting the same data. Sometimes men are included,” Alexander said, noting in her report that a centralized database with information specific to this issue could help greatly.

The Yakama Nation Police Department has access to the NCIC, a deep electronic clearinghouse of crime data that nearly every criminal justice agency nationwide can access around the clock. It is not available to the public. On the other hand, NamUS is among the largest databases in which people can enter their loved ones, share that information and look up other cases. But NamUS has drawbacks — for example, it does not directly connect with any other law enforcement systems.

Six states are required by state law to use NamUS; Washington is not among them.

Addressing the problem

While challenges are apparent, many are eager to be part of the solutions, the report says, including the Yakama Nation.

“This is not an issue that any one Native Nation or community can address alone. Yakama Nation did not create this problem but we are dedicated to partnering with local and federal agencies to continue identifying solutions to the multiple issues that contribute to the tragedy of losing our Native women and girls,” says the letter signed by the Yakama MMIW Committee.

Meetings held statewide helped identify barriers, including inconsistency in reporting methods, cultural misunderstanding and distrust, lack of focused and easily accessible resources, as well as communication missteps, the report says.

Legislation this year, also sponsored by Mosbrucker, establishes guidelines for how Washington law enforcement agencies handle reports of missing Native people on and off reservations. House Bill 1713 also established two liaison positions within the State Patrol — one dedicated to the eastern part of the state, another for the westside — to work with family members when missing persons reports are filed.

“They will work with State Patrol, but will work in close concert with the tribes,” Alexander said. The hiring process will start in July. Those who are interested can visit the Washington State Patrol website.

She also hopes to have her report posted there on Tuesday. Alexander has built many relationships through the process of creating it, she said. She has heard from relatives and friends who have waited for answers and justice for decades. She wants them to feel empowered to fight for their loved ones.

“Every person is important to somebody,” she said. “Each person is cared about and loved.

“Let’s not let the trail get cold. Let’s find people.”

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.