A Washington task force investigating ways to reduce violence against Indigenous people released a report Monday detailing steps needed to address shortcomings in data collection, mistrust in the criminal justice system and the legacy of institutional racism. 

The Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, created by the state Attorney General’s Office in December 2021, detailed 10 recommendations sent to the Washington Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee.

Creation of a fully funded cold case unit in the AG’s office focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women and people, was a primary recommendation, and one Attorney General Bob Ferguson endorsed Monday.   

“Our women were going missing and murdered, and no one was listening,” task force member Abigail Echo-Hawk, executive vice president of the Seattle Indian Health Board, said during a news conference Monday. 

“Today, this task force puts forward recommendations that say justice isn’t for tomorrow, justice is now and we will fight for it.” 

A 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Washington has one of the highest number of cases of missing or murdered Native American women and girls in the country. Seattle had the highest number of cases among the cities it reviewed, though advocates and experts say cases are likely underreported. 

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The task force also recommended increasing data collection across the gender spectrum and in the LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, and two spirit) community, urging law enforcement agencies to improve transparency with family members involved in such cases, and extending the task force’s work through June 2025.

The crisis of violence against Indigenous people, particularly against women, has been felt for generations. Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot of the Yakama Nation, who serves as a task force member, knows that personally. Her sister, ​​Daisy Mae Heath, went missing in October 1987, and was legally declared dead a decade later. 

“I take this work very seriously because I also have grandchildren and great grandchildren, and I don’t want these grandchildren to go through what we’ve been through,” Whitefoot said during the news conference. 

A centralized cold case unit backed by the state could help smaller law enforcement agencies get the support they need to fully investigate homicide cases or instances of missing persons, said Annie Forsman-Adams, the task force’s policy analyst.

That would go a long way in beginning to build trust between Indigenous communities and the police and courts systems, said Forsman-Adams, who works for the Attorney General’s Office.

“Undoing the systems takes time, and the community being willing to trust us when really they have no reason to,” Forsman-Adams said. “It takes a lot from all sides to be able to reconcile that painful history, but if we don’t start that process, we’re not going to get far in increasing systemic change to make things safer and better for Indigenous communities.”  

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An early idea from the task force was the creation of a new missing Indigenous person alert system, similar to Amber Alerts for children and Silver Alerts for seniors. In July, the Washington State Patrol started the new missing Indigenous person alert system, the first of its kind in the nation. The new alert system has already been used at least once since then, according to Ferguson.

The total number of missing or murdered Indigenous women in the United States is unknown for a number of reasons, including incomplete federal databases, racial misclassification, and mistrust in Indigenous communities toward law enforcement agencies. 

A 2017 study found the murder rate for American Indian and Alaska Native women is almost three times that of white women, and a 2008 study found that in some counties, American Indian and Alaska Native women face a murder rate over 10 times the national average. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Justice.

The task force will issue a second report in June, which will expand on current recommendations and review legislative actions expected in the next 10 months, Forsman-Adams said.