'Shoddy example.' How to count the Native women who have gone missing?
Daisy Mae Heath went missing more than 30 years ago. Her family doesn’t know what happened to her.
She is one of an unknown number of missing and murdered indigenous women across Washington state and around the country.
Heath’s sister, Patricia Whitefoot of the Yakama Nation, last saw her in the summer of 1987.
Whitefoot remembers her sister’s smile, and her beautiful long black hair. Her sister played basketball competitively, she said, and it wasn’t unusual for her to hike into the mountains to gather traditional Native foods and medicines, or to go fishing at the river.
Heath was independent, and Whitefoot said she would sometimes leave for periods of time. But her absence at the end of that summer was different.
The family reported her missing in October 1987, but the case remains unsolved.
“When something like this happens in your family, you literally don’t know what to do,” Whitefoot said.
Other women had gone missing or had been murdered around White Swan, where Whitefoot and Heath lived. Whitefoot had to come to terms with the fact that her sister was now one of that number.
“After months go by, and years go by, you finally have to accept that she is missing and then you begin to wonder,” Whitefoot said. Did she leave voluntarily? Was she murdered? Was she being held captive?
A few years after she went missing, some of Heath’s clothing and a ring Whitefoot had given her were found in the closed area of the Yakama Nation reservation.
Still, Whitefoot and the rest of her family had no answers about what had happened.
After several more years, the family went through the process of legally and ritually declaring Heath deceased. The impact lives on in her family and in many others.
“Even though we did that, you still hope,” Whitefoot said.
Whitefoot knows her situation is all too familiar to the Native community.
In recent years, the long-running epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women has received more attention.
But cases like Heath’s continue to occur and remain unsolved. Advocates and leaders in the Native community are sending a message to the state that they expect more.
In 2018, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring the Washington State Patrol to examine the issue of missing and murdered Native women.
This summer, the state patrol released their findings.
But some community members say that report is "severely lacking" and that it failed to provide proper analysis of available data and concerns raised during public meetings.
The Urban Indian Health Institute recently released a scathing response to the state report.
Abigail Echo-Hawk is the director of the health institute, the research arm of the Seattle Indian Health Board, and an author of their rebuttal of the state’s study.
She said Washington was the first of several states to enact this legislation, positioning it as an example for others.
"My greatest fear is that other states will look at the shoddy example of what Washington state was able to do and they will do that themselves,” she said.
Echo-Hawk said the community won’t allow their women to be invisible any longer, and they’re demanding more.
Monica Alexander, a former captain for the state patrol, authored the initial state report. She said a lot of effort was behind it, but she agrees that more work needs to be done on the issue.
“This was an introduction to a much longer study and a much more in-depth relationship building and I look forward to that," Alexander said.
The state report found 56 indigenous women currently missing in Washington.
Based on this number, indigenous women represent at least 7% of missing women cases in the state, but only 2% of the overall female population.
Echo-Hawk said this information was not adequately contextualized in the state report. She said Native women go missing at higher rates than their white counterparts.
She also said the numbers reported by the state are an undercount, in part due to rampant racial misclassification of missing and murdered women.
“While there has not been a comprehensive study on racial misclassification in Washington state law enforcement data, a study conducted in Pacific Northwest hospitals found a 44% incidence of racial misclassification of American Indian/Alaska Native patients in Washington State,” the health institute study says.
This indicates the impact misclassification could be having on law enforcement data.
“Racial misclassification has been a problem and will continue to be a problem until it is recognized by entities other than Native-led and tribal organizations,” said Adrian Dominguez, the health institute's director of informatics and epidemiology.
“The state needs to listen to us when we tell them that their data is an undercount,” Dominguez said in a statement.
Echo-Hawk acknowledges that their analysis is not perfect. “The limitations to our study were huge,” she said.
But she said they worked with what they had and they wanted to do it, despite the limitations, to exemplify how they believe it should have been conducted in the first place.
She also said they wanted to honor the knowledge and the stories shared by community members during the state’s process.
Community members have raised concerns about institutional racism and bias within law enforcement – for example, some people reported not being taken seriously when trying to report a loved one missing, or being told to come back after a day or two – mistrust between Native communities and police, and a lack of resources and coordination across jurisdictions.
All play a role in the gaps in data and understanding of the crisis.
Said Patricia Whitefoot, “By not having that communication then definitely there’s going to be mistrust, and [you] don’t trust then that justice will ever be a reality in the future."
The state legislature passed a law this year that creates two tribal liaison positions within the Washington State Patrol to improve trust and communication.
Whitefoot said she also believes it’s important to provide resources for children impacted by the disappearance or murder of their parent or loved one.