Feds join effort to find missing and murdered Indigenous people

Western Washington Gets Real on the issue of the missing and murdered from Native American communities.

Now there is a new push to find the missing and get justice for the murdered.

Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute found the Emerald City has the largest number of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country: 45.

And that does not account for the Indigenous men who are missing or murdered, too.

Now the federal government is joining the search for answers for their loved ones.

Theirs are the faces of the missing and those taken too soon. Each life story is different, but all are native to this land.

The story behind one picture is personal for Carolyn DeFord. “I went to my mom’s house, and we were talking,” she said.

Her mother, 45-year-old Leona Kinsey, disappeared from La Grande, Oregon, in October 1999.

The Yelm native and Puyallup tribal member has not been seen since.

DeFord was asked if she believes her mother is alive?

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No.”

The sobering fact is no one knows how many American Indian and Alaska Native males or females are missing and/or murdered in this country.

But two years ago, researchers at Seattle’s Urban Indian Health Institute set out to answer at least half that question.

“We found in the study that there is an absolute crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls nationwide,” said chief researcher Abigail Echo-Hawk, an enrolled member of Pawnee Tribe.

Echo-Hawk led the study.

“We found 506 cases in 71 cities across the United States,” said Echo-Hawk. “However, we know and were able to prove that this is a gross undercount. What that means is law enforcement nationwide is not collecting the race and ethnicity of individuals who go missing or are murdered.”

The study blamed the lack of data on institutional racism, racial misclassification, underreporting of the missing, a lack of access to the news media and poor relationships between law enforcement and Indigenous communities.

But the question remains: Is there anything about being Native American that gets us to this place?

“We’re not more at risk because I’m a Native woman,” Echo-Hawk said. “I am more at risk because I’m a Native woman living in this United States.”

“Your question about why or who — that’s the million-dollar question,” said David Rogers, former Nez Perce Tribe police chief.

He was hired by the feds and given the monumental task of answering that question.

His main mission: to help build trust between federal, state and local law enforcement and the Indian Country.

“When it comes to victims of missing person cases or unsolved homicides, the boundaries may blur a little bit,” said Rogers. “But the ability to collaborate and work together and share information is really vital to coming up with resolutions to these cases.”

It will likely also take a fundamental change in the way each sees the other.

“I sat down on her bed, and I lay down and smelled her pillows,” said Carolyn DeFord, “and smelled her.”

DeFord said she doesn’t believe police ever took her mother’s disappearance seriously.

What should have been done?

“An instant, instant search,” she said.

Instead, she has had to summon the energy and resources to prevent her mother’s 21-year-old case from disappearing, too.

She has accepted she may never find even her mother’s remains.

“But somebody needs to be held accountable,” she said. “Somebody took her. And they don’t deserve to rest. They don’t deserve to sleep at night without seeing her face.”

To be sure, the Native American community has been working for decades just to get to this point.

But they said they won’t be satisfied until the voices of the families of those murdered and missing are truly heard.

“What we are looking to see is true, meaningful change,” said Echo-Hawk. “If we are not working with the families of those affected, they are not going to do what is necessary to address this crisis.”

And it is a crisis that may finally be getting some of the attention it deserves.