The Seattle City Council adopted a resolution Monday acknowledging violence against indigenous women and girls and vowing to address the crisis by hiring a special liaison, investing in human services, consulting with tribal governments, improving data collection and training police.
The resolution doesn’t on its own allocate any money immediately. But sponsor Councilmember Debora Juarez said she believed the detailed measure would soon lead to positive changes. Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council will start hammering out next year’s budget later this month.
“We will be invisible no more,” said Juarez, who grew up on the Puyallup Reservation in Tacoma and is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation. “This is just the beginning and our very first step in making sure that when we lose our women and children, somebody will be there to go look for them.”
A report published last year by the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), using research from 71 U.S. cities, identified 506 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls since 1943. It identified 45 cases in Seattle, more than in any other city studied.
The actual numbers are likely higher, researchers said, citing a lack of quality data. There are long-standing concerns that institutional racism and poor relationships between police and Native communities have created gaps in understanding the problem.
Seattle as a city hasn’t yet compiled data on rates of violence against Native women and girls, according to Monday’s resolution. In June there were 56 Native women from Washington listed as missing in a national clearinghouse, including 12 in King County.
More than a dozen Native women, including leaders from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and social workers, urged the council to take action, underscoring the pervasive nature of the crisis by telling the council about their own missing and murdered relatives.
“Every day in this city, in this land … our matriarchs are dying,” because they’re indigenous women in a nation “built on genocide with continued colonization,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board, encouraging the council to “show the rest of the country the way.”
Council President Bruce Harrell choked up as he called for the vote. “Your stories have broken through,” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw tearfully told the audience.
The crisis has attracted more political attention and media interest in recent years. Earlier this year, the Canadian government issued a report holding the country responsible for “race-based genocide” against indigenous women and girls, and the Washington state Legislature passed a bill requiring the Washington State Patrol to compile data, hire liaisons and undergo training.
Seattle’s resolution, which Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to sign, says the council and mayor will work together and with the SIHB to carry out research, provide services and collect data related to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
The measure says the city will consult with tribes and other local Native organizations to develop a new consultation policy, with a report by the Durkan administration due to the council nearly next year.
It also says the city will create a new police-liaison position “to build relationships and increase trust and engagement” between the Seattle Police Department and Native communities.
In a 2010 survey, 94% of women who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native living in Seattle reported they had been raped or coerced into sex at least once.
“This is an opportunity for Seattle to truly be progressive, to really and truly unpack and unweave those racist and biased policies that are embedded in all institutions of power,” said Chelsea Hendrickson, Northern Arapaho and Cupiq.
The police liaison will assist with communication between the Police Department, Native organizations and other law enforcement agencies, according to the resolution.
The liaison also will help develop new training for interactions between Seattle police and Native communities and help develop new policies for data related to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Further, the city’s Human Services Department will review all existing contracts and programs to determine where more resources are needed to address gender-based violence and related challenges, with a report due early next year.
Monday’s resolution asks the Police Department to improve its response times for cases, develop culturally appropriate victim services and review past cases for Native victims who have may been racially misclassified.
“There are so many women who were never counted,” Echo-Hawk said.
The resolution says the Police Department will develop guidelines for interjurisdictional cooperation among law-enforcement agencies, including for protection orders for Native people.