OLYMPIA — Earlier this month, Charlene Tillequots attended a funeral service for her close childhood friend for the second time.
The first service was decades ago. At the time, the friend had been missing for seven years and there was no body to bury.
Her remains were recovered over 30 years after she went missing.
Tillequots is secretary of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council and chair of its missing and murdered Indigenous people committee. She said she supports new legislative bills meant to address the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people in the state, her friend among them. Building on previous efforts to tackle the issue, state lawmakers this year propose to create a new cold case unit and to extend a task force that makes recommendations on the issue.
As of January, 136 Native American people are missing in Washington, the majority from Yakama, according to the Washington State Patrol. Nationwide, more than 80% of American Indian and Alaskan Native women reported experiencing violence in their lifetimes, and those populations made up a disproportionate percentage of missing people in the U.S., according to a 2022 report prepared for Congress.
“These Native American women have waited for their cases to be addressed and solved for far too long,” Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow said. “And this is an opportunity to bring that forward and to help the families at the end of the day, put their hearts at rest, which is so very important.”
Lekanoff is sponsoring House Bill 1177 to create a cold case investigations unit in the state Attorney General’s Office focused on missing and murdered Indigenous people. Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, is sponsoring the companion Senate Bill 5137.
The proposed unit would collaborate with local and tribal police to solve cold cases. Establishing the team is one of the recommendations made last summer by the Attorney General’s Office’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, comprising tribal leaders, advocates, activists and state representatives.
Lekanoff is the first Native American woman elected to the chamber. Last year, the Legislature passed two bills bolstering the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, including one that created the first emergency alert system for Indigenous people in the nation.
She said the bipartisan effort to address the issue is a “huge victory.”
Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, is sponsoring Senate Bill 5477, which looks to extend the attorney general’s task force through June 2025. The bill also would implement other recommendations identified by the task force, including improving communication among law enforcement agencies, tribal police and family members.
“It may not affect you, it may not affect me, but it is in our community … and it affects our district, our neighbors. So, if we care about our community in our district, I think it is important to bring it to the forefront and continue shedding some light on it,” Torres said.
Annie Forsman-Adams, policy analyst for the attorney general’s task force and a member of the Suquamish Tribe, said unresolved homicide or missing people cases have a large cultural effect on tribal communities, since it can be difficult to perform ceremonies when the remains of loved ones have not been identified or recovered.
“One advocate put it really poignantly … when these cases go unresolved, it really robs families of their ability to grieve appropriately,” Forsman-Adams said.
She said historical policy decisions that marginalized Indigenous people caused decades of violence against them throughout the nation.
In Washington, one of the earliest recorded cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women took place in 1855, when miners murdered a Yakama woman, her daughter and baby, igniting the Yakama War, according to some accounts.
“What we are really doing is trying to unravel all of that bad policy, all of those bad laws, all of those oppressive procedures in order to end the epidemic,” Forsman-Adams said.
She said the task force has more work to do, including tackling the lack of data on reported missing or murdered Indigenous people, racial misclassification and more outreach to families.
“Once it was known only as an Indian issue, when it really wasn’t,” Lekanoff said. “It was a national crisis. It’s an American crisis. So we have come now full circle into it being a Washington state crisis. And that is a lot of the work that I could step back and breathe and say we’re not so alone.”