One by one, the women spoke of unfathomable pain – of loved ones lost, of institutional indifference that allowed loved ones’ cases to go uninvestigated, of justice that never came, of racism that is felt on so many levels by Indigenous people.
“Nearly 50 percent of our women have been raped, our men are imprisoned at rates four times higher than white men, and our children are put into foster care at rates four times that of white children,” Marissa Perez, Oglala Lakota, told the Seattle City Council on Sept. 9. “This shame is killing our people and I have come here today to say ‘no more.’ I am not carrying this shame any longer. It is your turn.
“As representatives of our government, you are representing those who laid this shame on my shoulders and it is now time for you to take it back. You must find our women, return our children to their grandmothers, and stop the murder of our men. You must listen when we speak, you must walk on our land with reverence and you must repair the relationships that were fractured so long ago. It is your turn to carry that shame because I refuse to pass it on to my children. It is your turn now.”
The Seattle City Council unanimously approved a resolution that lays out a plan and timeframe to improve data collection and build collaboration between the city government, police department and area tribal nations in accounting for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Seattle. The resolution, No. 31900, was sponsored by City Councilwoman Debora Juarez, Blackfeet.
According to Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and Chief Research Officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board, the resolution is the first such legislation in the United States that has “real measurable outcomes.”
Some key points in the resolution:
- The City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan “will work together to create sustainable investments in research and direct services, and create racially appropriate and accurate data collection methods” regarding Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.
- The City will work with the Seattle Indian Health Board to “identify strategies for improving the City’s collection of data to more effectively understand and address issues facing Native communities.”
- The City will consult with local tribal nations and urban Indian organizations to improve tribal-municipal collaboration and communication.
- By the first quarter of 2020, the mayor will submit to the council a report that includes recommendations on developing a citywide tribal consultation to better serve Native communities.
- The City will create “a culturally attuned police liaison position” to build relationships between the Seattle Police Department and Native communities. The liaison will coordinate with the Seattle Indian Health Board to assist with trainings relevant to interactions between Seattle police and Native communities -- including interactions that might result in the correct identification and recording of racial identity.
- The City will coordinate with the health board to train Seattle Police in how to record the tribal enrollment or affiliation of victims in databases.
- The City will coordinate with the health board to determine the amount of funding available for sexual assault prevention and treatment programs, homelessness response, mental health services, and substance use disorder services.
- The police department will develop guidelines on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among law enforcement agencies at the tribal, federal, state, and local levels, including inter-jurisdictional enforcement of protection orders for members of Native communities.
‘Opportunity to unweave racist policies’
The city’s action comes in the wake of two reports released this year—one by the Seattle Indian Health Board, one by Washington State Patrol—about Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, the lack of reporting and investigation by law enforcement, and the systemic oppression and institutional racism that has allowed the crisis to grow.
The health board study found that Seattle has the highest number of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) cases of 71 urban cities studied. The study found that, nationwide, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016, though the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database only logged 116 cases. And 5,712 is likely a significant undercount because of racial misclassification and a lack of consistent data collection, the study stated. The study recommends that tribal nations “be part of meaningful consultations to ensure proper data collection and sustained access to the data.”
According to the study, nine cities reported the inability to search for American Indian, Native American, or Alaska Native in their data reporting systems despite the common practice of classifying victims by race in data systems. “A representative from Santa Fe [Mexico] police wrote, ‘[Many] Native Americans adopted Hispanic names back during colonial times … Our crime systems are not flexible enough to pick out Native Americans from others in the system.’”
The health board study also recommends that tribal nations be notified when one of their citizens living in an urban area is reported missing or is killed. “This is a courtesy extended to all other sovereign nations,” the study stated. “When a citizen is killed while living or traveling outside the nation of which they are a citizen, the nation is notified of their death and able to advocate for their citizen’s case and family. This courtesy is not extended [to tribal nations], and rarely is a tribal nation notified or given access to the data regarding their tribal citizens.”
Juarez said the health board study was a first and that Resolution 31900 was an important step in continuing the work of “correcting this historical pattern of neglect of Indigenous communities and toward deconstructing institutional racism.”
She said, “We are correcting or righting the historical wrongs of institutional oppression. Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is an unjust manifestation of institutional racism and colonization, [of] policies, perspectives and procedures that don’t value our lives or don’t see us as human.
“We hope that today, when our mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, cousins go missing, that people will hear us, that people will see us and people will go looking for them.”
Those testifying at Seattle City Hall on Sept. 9 gave voice to those who have died and those who are waiting to be found.
“Every day in this city, in this land, in this state, in this nation, our matriarchs are dying and they’re dying of violence that is based on one thing: That they are Indigenous women living in a country built on genocide, with continuing colonization that results in the historical trauma where our women are dying,” Echo-Hawk told the council. “The voices that should be singing at every one of our ceremonies, the hands that should be cooking the food to serve the next generations, the thoughts and the prayers that allow our next generations to continue—these are the people we are losing every single day.”
Muckleshoot Tribe Councilwoman Virginia Cross—accompanied by fellow Council member Jessica Garcia-Jones and Jones’ daughter, Farra—told of a niece who was murdered five years ago. Farra wore a red hand painted over her mouth as a symbol of women who have been silenced in death.
Ada McDaniel, Muckleshoot, told of her sister who was murdered in the mid-1960s. “My sister was murdered here in the city of Seattle with no investigation,” she said. “Her body was brought back to the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and buried. To this day—every day—I think of my sister.”
Chelsea Hendrickson, Northern Arapaho, told of her aunt who was murdered in downtown Seattle 21 years ago, and of racist and biased policies the aunt had come in contact with while in the court system. “I do believe this is an opportunity for Seattle to be truly progressive and unpack and unweave those racist and biased policies that are embedded in all institutions of power and right some of the wrongs of Seattle’s past,” she said.
Susan Starr, Muckleshoot, told of growing up in the 1980s, of how she and her friends always paired up when going out and how “there was a time that we didn’t pair up and I lost one of my good friends. She never came home to the Muckleshoot Reservation. She left (Tacoma) trying to make it home and never made it home. That day left an open hole in my heart forever.”
ONLINE: The Yakima Herald-Republic in Yakima, Washington, has compiled a database of original reporting on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls and related resources. See “The Vanished” at https://www.yakimaherald.com/special_projects/vanished/
The Seattle City Council’s hearing on Resolution 31900 can be watched on the Seattle Channel, http://www.seattlechannel.org/FullCouncil?videoid=x107060&jwsource=cl
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a writer based in Anacortes, Washington.