Washington lawmakers continue to work on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women

Jadenne Radoc Cabahug / The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA – Earlier this month, Charlene Tillequots attended a memorial service for her close childhood friend for the second time.

The first service was decades ago. At this point, the friend had been missing for seven years and there was no body to bury.

Her remains were recovered over 30 years after her disappearance.

Tillequots is Secretary of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council and Chair of its Committee on Missing and Murdered Tribal Peoples. She said she supports new bills aimed at addressing the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people in the state, including her friend. Building on previous efforts to address the issue, state legislators this year are proposing to create a new unit to deal with unsolved cases and expand a task force to make recommendations on the issue.

According to the Washington State Patrol, 136 Native Americans are missing in Washington in January, most of them from Yakama. According to a 2022 report prepared for Congress, more than 80% of Native American and Alaskan Native women nationwide said they had experienced violence in their lifetime, and these populations made up a disproportionate percentage of missing people in the United States.

“These Native American women have waited far too long for their cases to be addressed and resolved,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow. “And this is an opportunity to take that forward and at the end of the day to help families settle their hearts, which is so very important.”

Lekanoff sponsors House Bill 1177 to create a cold case investigative unit in the prosecutor’s office focused on missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, sponsors accompanying Senate Bill 5137.

The proposed unit would work with local and tribal police to solve cases of the common cold. The team’s establishment is one of the recommendations made last summer by the prosecutor’s office’s Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People, made up of tribal leaders, lawyers, activists and state officials.

Lekanoff is the first Native American woman elected to the Chamber. Last year, the legislature passed two laws to strengthen the movement for missing and murdered tribal women, including one that launched the country’s first emergency alert system for tribal peoples.

She said the bipartisan effort to address the issue was a “huge victory.”

Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, sponsors Senate Bill 5477, which would extend the Attorney General’s Task Force through June 2025. The bill would also implement other recommendations identified by the task force, including improving communications between law enforcement and tribal police and family members.

“It might not affect you, it might not affect me, but it’s in our community … and it’s affecting our district, our neighbors. So as we care about our community in our district, I think it’s important to bring that with us, to bring that to the forefront and to continue to shed some light on that,” Torres said.

Annie Forsman-Adams, a policy analyst for the Attorney General’s Task Force and a member of the Suquamish tribe, said unsolved murder or missing persons cases have a major cultural impact on tribal communities, as it can be difficult to perform ceremonies when the remains of loved ones are involved those were not identified or recovered.

“One attorney put it really well…when these cases go unresolved, it really robs families of their ability to grieve properly,” Forsman-Adams said.

She said historic policy decisions that led to decades of violence against marginalized tribal peoples across the country.

In Washington, one of the earliest recorded cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women occurred in 1855, when miners murdered a Yakama woman, her daughter, and her baby, prompting some reports to start the Yakama War.

“What we’re really doing is trying to expose all of these bad policies, all of these bad laws, all of these repressive processes to end the epidemic,” Forsman-Adams said.

She said the task force still had more work to do, including addressing the lack of data on reported missing or murdered Tribal peoples, racial misclassifications and more outreach to families.

“It used to be known only as an Indian problem, although it really wasn’t,” Lekanoff said. “It was a national crisis. It’s an American crisis. So we’ve now come full circle that this is a crisis in Washington State. And that’s a lot of work I could step back and breathe and say we’re not so alone.”



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