US fights the crisis of missing indigenous women

US fights the crisis of missing indigenous women

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US fights the crisis of missing indigenous women

Four years ago, Debra Lekanoff was traveling through U.S in her position as director of government affairs for the Swinomish Indian community, when her daughter approached her with concern. The 14-year-old girl had learned some disturbing details about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. The teenager worried that one day her mother, who is an Alaskan native and often traveled alone, might not come home. Lekanoff remembers her daughter asking her, “Isn’t there a way to let everyone know when we’re kidnapped?”

Today, as a representative for the Democratic Party of the state of Washington and only native american of the state legislature, Lekanoff is working to do just that. At the beginning of the month, it collaborated in the presentation of a bill that will deploy a specific alert system for missing indigenous persons.

If approved, it would be the first such system in the US. In addition to helping to locate missing persons and improve communication between security agencies, it also seeks to raise public awareness of the crisis of missing indigenous persons, particularly women and girls.

American Indian and Alaska Native women go missing in Washington more than four times as often as white residents of the state, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Directorate. In a 2018 report, the institute found that, of the 29 states surveyed, Washington had the second most Native American women and girls and missing and murdered Alaska Natives.

Lekanoff, who is from the Tlingit and Aleut communities, says the system will convey to Washingtonians that “this is not just an indigenous issue, but a crisis that is everyone’s responsibility. We want to hear your cry when you are separated from his family. And this alarm system is his cry.”

The proposed alarm system will work similarly to “silver alarms,” ​​which are used in Washington and dozens of other states across the country to help locate vulnerable missing people. The idea is that, when an indigenous person is reported missing, the security forces can activate the alert, and then transmit the details to identify them through radio messages, posters and press releases for the media.

“As long as this remains in the dark corners of our state and is not talked about or shared, the crisis will continue,” says Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who worked with Lekanoff on the bill. “I think an important step in addressing the crisis, one of many, is to put the spotlight on it.”

Some indigenous leaders from across the state have also declared their support for the law. But there are also those who question why the system has not been approved before, due to the many years that this crisis has accumulated.

“This is something that could have been done very quickly once the seriousness of the issue was realized,” says Puyallup Community Councilor Anna Bean. “It’s something we could have put in place a long time ago.” Even so, she adds that “now it has been put on the table and something is being done. And I am very grateful for it.”

Bean, who is also a member of the Washington State Task Force for Missing & Murdered Indian Women, describes the Puyallup Tribe, whose reservation sits along the US Interstate 5 corridor, as the “playing field.” for human trafficking and other types of crimes that cause disappearances. As he points out, this type of alarm system could make a big difference in these cases, in which the rapid dissemination of accurate information about a disappearance is vital.

A few years ago, the family of Andy Joseph Jr., the director of the Colville Business Council, the governing body of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, found themselves in a tragic situation when their daughter’s sister-in-law’s boyfriend took the young children of the couple. The man was caught in part thanks to community posts on Facebook, but Joseph believes the assailant could have been found even sooner if an alert system like the one proposed had been in place.

“I think our people would feel a lot safer and I also think criminals would think a little bit more about trying to do something like that, because they would know that they would probably be identified,” he says.

Some indigenous leaders have recommended that the alarm system include elements such as a photo of the missing individual and that the system be automatic, rather than activated by security forces, so that no one is missed. They have also suggested that the collection of broader data on the crisis should be improved, to better understand the problem and the possible impact of such an alarm system.

Lekanoff says the details of the system will be worked out in consultation with the 29 federally recognized Indian communities in Washington state. The representative also says that the proposal has received support from legislators of both parties and that she hopes that, as of the session that began last week, the project will be approved.

Lekanoff also refers to the mark of the red hand over the mouth, which has become the symbol of the movement for the disappeared and murdered indigenous women. “The alarm system takes that hand away. It unleashes the screams of those women who are being murdered or robbed of their families, their children, their communities,” she says.

Translation of Ignacio Rial-Schies

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