Indigenous peoples defy invisibility
This is the eighth in a series of EQUITY BLOGS that explores the contexts of longstanding disparities in the health and wellbeing of King County residents. In addition to helping us understand the root causes of some disparities, the blogs show how tightly history is woven into our lives and our children’s futures. They also acknowledge the rich variability of responses within and across groups and generations, from strength and resilience to lasting harm embedded in policy and everyday life.
If we can get mainstream society talking about the way in which invisibility of Native people is the modern form of racism, step number one, accomplished.
Dr. Stephanie A. Fryberg (Tulalip) University of Washington
American Indian and Alaska Native communities have been at the forefront of the movement to acknowledge, track, and ultimately reduce disproportionately high rates of sexual violence, disappearance, and death among Indigenous women – an issue that, until recently, was barely discernible in mainstream media or policy discussions. In part by heightening visibility of the issue, these efforts have contributed to the release of 4 high-profile reports in the past year:
Based on results of a sexual violence survey conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), Our Bodies, Our Stories: Sexual Violence among Native Women in Seattle, WA reported that 94% of Native women interviewed in Seattle had, at some point in their life, been raped or coerced into having sex. Although more than 7 in 10 Native Americans live in urban areas, this was the first study to focus on Native women in a city.
Expanding their reach to 71 US cities, UIHI followed up with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, which used 5 data sources to identify 506 unique cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women. UIHI stressed that this number was a gross undercount , as only 40 (out of 72) law-enforcement agencies provided timely data in response to Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) requests, and many records were incomplete, inaccurate (often due to racial misclassification), or only went back a few years. The city with the highest number of verified missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) was Seattle. Even in Seattle, which did respond to the FOIA request, 11 of the 45 cases of MMIWG were not in law-enforcement records and were verified through a combination of government missing-persons databases, media reports, social media and advocacy sites, and contact with families and community members. Across all cities, 153 of the 506 cases were not found in law-enforcement records.
Three and a half years in the making, Canada’s 2-volume Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded with 231 individual Calls for Justice directed at everyone from governments to “all Canadians.” The Calls to Justice were “presented as legal imperatives rather than optional recommendations” in the areas of health, security, justice, and culture.
Although not led by Indigenous communities, Washington State Patrol’s (WSP’s) Missing & Murdered Native American Women Report was prepared in response to Substitute House Bill 2951’s mandate to conduct a study “to determine how to increase reporting and investigation of missing Native American women.” While short on calls to action not already required by law, WSP’s report explained the data-collection tools currently used by law enforcement and documented findings from 10 community-outreach meetings.
The absence of accurate and timely data emerged as a consistent theme. Summarizing across reports, barriers to achieving high-quality and actionable data included:
o Lack of a centralized, coordinated database that can be readily used by tribal, state, federal, and international law-enforcement agencies.
o Lack of consistent record-keeping protocols.
o Racial misclassification (as white or another race).
o Absence of information about tribal affiliation.
o Family members’ reluctance to report to law enforcement, often due to distrust of government and a perception that no one cares.
o Confusion about jurisdiction – which could fall to tribal, city, state, or federal law enforcement agencies, depending on the location of the crime/event, the tribal affiliations of victims and perpetrators, and the type of complaint being filed (missing person, assault, murder).
o Among law enforcement, lack of training and experience working with tribes and Native communities.
o Inadequate representation of American Indians and/or Alaska Natives in law enforcement.
o Lack of media interest in reporting missing Indigenous women.
Moving forward with policy
Washington’s new state law, 2SHB 1713, addresses some of these barriers by: (a) establishing 2 new liaison positions within Washington State Patrol (WSP) to strengthen relationships between law enforcement and Native communities, and (b) developing a best-practices protocol for WSP’s response to missing persons reports regarding members of Indigenous populations.
Federal legislation (Savanna’s Act) has been introduced to increase coordination among federal, state, city, and tribal law enforcement (urban areas were added to the bill after feedback from UIHI). Another federal legislative effort that would foster interjurisdictional cooperation is the Not Invisible Act of 2019, the first bill ever introduced by 4 Representatives who are members of federally recognized tribes.
Locally, Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), Director of UIHI and Chief Research Officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board, and Mary Ellen Stone, Executive Director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, co-chair a subcommittee of the King County Board of Health that will make recommendations and outline the protocol for a public health approach to sexual assault, domestic violence prevention, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. And a Seattle City Council resolution, passed on September 9th, outlines an action plan to deal with the crisis that includes:
Collaborating with the Seattle Indian Health Board to improve data collection and provide human services.
Improving police response times and developing guidelines for interjurisdictional cooperation among law-enforcement agencies.
Appointing a police liaison to develop new training protocols, help build trust and improve communication between law enforcement and Native communities, and assist with new data policies regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Joining with tribal governments and other Native organizations to develop a consultation policy.
Increasing visibility and cooperation
Taking the lead on improving data collection, the Urban Indian Health Institute coordinated Community Days of Action, a nationwide effort to raise awareness and train community members to enter missing relatives’ information in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). According to the UIHI report, 5,712 Native women were reported to the National Crime Information Center as missing in 2016, yet only 116 of these women were logged in NamUs.
Raising awareness is only one piece of the solution. Adrian Dominguez, scientific director of UIHI, stresses the importance of continued involvement of Native communities in crafting policy and data solutions. When population numbers are small, concerns about privacy or statistical reliability often leads to data suppression, and repeated data exclusions have decreased the visibility of Indigenous peoples and the issues that are important to them. Dominguez notes that the Urban Indian Health Institute has considerable experience dealing with the unique challenges of collecting and analyzing data on Native American and Alaska Native populations, including specific techniques for working with small population numbers – numbers that, however small, are crucially important to Native communities.
After years of work, the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is starting to register with lawmakers; hopefully effective policy will follow. And hopefully a willingness to work together will extend to other issues relevant to Native populations (see the Health Disparities Dashboard for an overview of differences in health outcomes). UIHI’s data expertise and community connections will be crucial to extending these advances and sustaining the visibility of Indigenous peoples.
Not Invisible: Confronting a crisis of violence against Native women. Seattle Times 2019 video series
You probably never heard about these 500 missing and murdered women. Huffington Post, November 15, 2018.