Tribal representatives and lawmakers from across the state filled the governor's conference room as Governor Jay Inslee signed HB 1713 on April 24, 2019. Earth-Feather Sovereign and her daughter stand to Inslee's left.
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Tribal representatives and lawmakers from across the state filled the governor's conference room as Governor Jay Inslee signed HB 1713 on April 24, 2019. Earth-Feather Sovereign and her daughter stand to Inslee's left.
Credit: Courtesy of Washington State House Republican Communications

Washington passes 'model bill' on missing indigenous women

In what's being called a significant step for tribal communities, the Washington legislature has passed a bill to help investigate crimes of missing and murdered indigenous women.

It requires the state patrol to write best practices for how to investigate those crimes. Currently, police organizations throughout the state have differing protocols and varied relationships with tribes.

The new law also creates two new state patrol positions to work on cases of missing Native American people. They'll work as liaisons between law enforcement and the tribal community, with one liaison based in western Washington and one in eastern.

Democratic Representative Debra Lekanoff calls it "a model bill for the nation," with police and tribes working together.

"To be able to reach across that invisible border between a local boundary to the tribal reservations and say 'how is it that we can better find our missing women?' Then [also] protect our women that are here today," Lekanoff said.

Lekanoff, a tribal member, helped sponsor the bill. It's a topic she and her daughter have worried over for years.

As she recalls past conversations with her daughter, Lekanoff said "she looked at me and said, 'Please don't ever be alone mom, please come home and please be safe.' Why are these women missing? And to watch my 15-year-old daughter's eyes welled up in tears — that's why I think it's so important that we work on this issue together."

Tribal advocates are praising the change. Earth-Feather Sovereign founded the nonprofit Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of Washington.

"This doesn't only effect our missing and murdered indigenous women or girls, it also affects our two-spirits which is the LGBTQ community, and also our indigenous men where we also have high rates [of disappearances]," she said. "So this will help repair the system for everybody."

Crimes that lead to the death or disappearance of indigenous women are an epidemic nationwide, with Washington state seeing some of the highest numbers.

More specifically, Seattle has the most cases of missing or murdered Native American women of any U.S. city, according to the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute. The organization counted 2,7000 missing indigenous women nationwide, in research published in 2018.

Washington's new bill was sponsored by Republican Representative Gina Mosbrucker and signed by Governor Jay Inslee April 24. It takes effect in 90 days.