In the past several decades, indigenous women have been disappearing—and no one has been tracking how many.
A new study conducted by Seattle's Urban Indian Health Institute, released Wednesday, concluded that a number of problems have contributed to the underreporting of Native women who have gone missing or were murdered.
The study counted 71 missing or murdered indigenous women in Washington, the state with the second-highest number following New Mexico. Researchers said they believe the study's total—of 506 cases nationwide—is still an undercount.
Of the 71 cities researched, Seattle ranks highest in the number of reported missing and murdered cases; 45 of the state's cases were in Seattle. Eleven of those cases weren't reported to law enforcement.
“While some awareness is being raised, there is not enough outcry. There is not enough righteous anger,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and tribal member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, in an interview with Seattle Met before the study's release. “In this city, in this county, in this state, in this country, we are shown over and over again that our lives and our bodies don’t matter.”
Counts for the number of missing women significantly vary depending on the database.
A spokesperson for the FBI said the National Crime Information Center has 53 active records of missing Native women in Washington; in NamUs, a publicly available federal repository of missing people, it's only 16. NamUs spokesperson Todd Matthews said the system has a backlog of old cases that haven't yet been added, since NamUs wasn't created until the 2000s.
Several factors ultimately resulted in underreporting the number of missing and murdered indigenous women, or making it more difficult to find them—like the misclassification of race by law enforcement and lack of tribal affiliations listed, according to the study.
The report also highlighted a lack of reporting on the missing women and, when there was reporting, media bias that perpetuated harmful stereotypes of Native women.
Unlike previous studies, this report had been more comprehensive by going beyond available federal databases; researchers filed multiple FOIA requests, as well as directly contacted families and community members.
"This report is the evidence that we need that the problem is more than real; it's horrifying. And we need action," U.S. senator Maria Cantwell said at a press conference. "We can no longer sweep these statistics under a rug."
Elected officials, both at the state and federal level, have taken notice.
Legislation sponsored by state representative Gina Mosbrucker (formerly Gina McCabe), a Goldendale Republican, in January 2018 directed Washington State Patrol to collect data and craft a report on the number of missing and murdered indigenous women statewide.
In Congress, North Dakota Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp in October 2017 had introduced a bill that would require the Department of Justice to provide a new data field—a victim's tribal enrollment or affiliation. The law would also develop standard protocols on investigating missing and murdered Native cases, and provide tribes with training and assistance for implementing these protocols.
The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday approved the bill, which was named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who had been kidnapped and killed in Fargo last year.
Washington State Patrol's captain Monica Alexander and Mosbrucker began meeting with tribes statewide for WSP's report, which they hope will include missing women that had been reported to tribal police but not local law enforcement. Alexander Meetings started in late September and continued through November, though Alexander said no tribes have shared information with WSP as of November 7.
State officials said the lack of coordination and communication between law enforcement and tribal police have been a barrier to knowing the exact count of missing Native women. Throughout these meetings, Alexander said tribes have consistently told her families haven't been taken seriously when they try to report missing women to police.
"I'm trying to build trust where trust maybe doesn't exist," Alexander told Seattle Met. "They're a very important part of our community. I'm doing this from a perspective of, I want answers for you."
Echo-Hawk has said the disproportionate sexual violence Native women experience goes hand in hand with the statistics on missing and murdered indigenous women. The oversexualization of Native women, which started with colonialism, continues to degrade and dehumanize women and contributes to their becoming targets, she said.
With the exception of certain tribes on some domestic violence cases, tribes aren't allowed to prosecute non-American Indian criminals, not even on their land. Advocates fear that more awareness around that loophole have also drawn more predators to reservations.
Echo-Hawk had said she started the study without project funding, but managed to gather the money to complete it well before a government agency would take action.
"I'm not going to wait for the state," Echo-Hawk said. "Our women deserve justice now."