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Washington approves first statewide alert system for missing indigenous people

Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks before signing a measure that puts the state on track to create the first ‘public option’ health insurance in the US, Monday, May 13, 2019, in Olympia, Wash. The new law is a hybrid system that will see private insurers offer state-defined plans. (Rachel La Corte/AP)

Washington approves first statewide alert system for missing indigenous people

April 01, 12:59 PM April 01, 12:59 PM

Washington approved the creation of a statewide alert system specifically for missing indigenous people, the first of its kind in the country.

The law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, creates an emergency system similar to that of Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts that are used to help locate missing children and vulnerable adults, respectively. The new system aims to address a nationwide crisis of missing indigenous people, particularly women, that has historically gone overlooked but has worsened over the last few years.

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“I am proud to say that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s and People’s Alert System came from the voices of our Native American leaders,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit tribe and the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s not just an Indian issue. It’s not just an Indian responsibility. Our sisters, our aunties, our grandmothers are going missing every day … and it’s been going on for far too long.”

When an alert is sent, it will notify law enforcement, place messages on highway billboards and signs, inform local news media, and post updates on social media. It is unclear how alert information will be distributed in rural areas or what criteria law enforcement will use to identify someone as Native American.

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The move comes in response to a 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office that concluded the number of missing indigenous women and children nationwide is unknown due to faulty reporting and distrust in law enforcement officials. Lawmakers hope the system will allow for better communication between tribal and nontribal law enforcement to locate missing persons more quickly.

In Washington, it’s estimated that indigenous women are four times more likely to go missing than white women, according to research conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute. However, these cases often receive little to no media attention.

Washington, along with Montana, reports the most missing indigenous women in the country, with nearly four dozen missing in Seattle alone, according to Tulalip Tribes of Washington Chairwoman Teri Gobin.

“What’s the most important thing is bringing them home, whether they’ve been trafficked, whether they’ve been stolen or murdered,” Gobin said at the bill’s signing, according to the Washington Post. “It’s a wound that stays open, and it’s something that we pray [that] with each person, we can bring them home.”

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The bill was paired with another piece of legislation aimed at more accurately identifying bodies that are found, as indigenous remains are often mistakenly reported with the incorrect race or are never identified at all.

The law is set to take effect on June 9.

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