“Nuna, I’ll be back. I love you.”
Those words are etched in Cissy Strong’s mind when she recalls the last day she saw her younger sister, Rosenda.
Cissy and Rosenda are Native American women who live in southern Washington on the Yakama Indian Reservation. On Oct. 2, 2018, the sisters spoke briefly as Rosenda, 31, got ready to head out with a group of friends. One of those friends picked her up around 7 p.m., and they headed to Legends Casino on the reservation.
Cissy has not heard from her sister since. “She would never not tell me where she is,” Cissy says. Rosenda is loud and social. She likes to go out with friends, but her four children -- two boys and two girls -- are her world. “They had all her attention,” Cissy says. “She is just a joyful, proud mom.”
After four days of calling hospitals, jails, friends and family, Cissy filed a report with tribal police on the Yakama Reservation. At first there was pushback from the officers. “She’s probably still partying,” Cissy recalls them saying. Several days later, the Yakama police and then the FBI launched a search for Rosenda, yielding many questions but few answers. Cissy still hears whispers around town. Rosenda supposedly left the casino with a friend, but no one knows for sure where she might have gone.
Rosenda’s photo now circulates on webpages and social media groups for other missing Native Americans. In one widely shared post, 13-year-old Marisa Ellison poses for what looks like a school portrait. Her dark brown hair cascades over her shoulders, and a dimple pierces her left cheek. Ellison vanished from her home in Oklahoma last year, a few weeks after Rosenda Strong. Ellison was found several months later and returned to her family. But the list of other missing women and girls goes on, highlighting a reality that has plagued native communities for generations.
Thirteen-year-old Marisa Ellison disappeared from her home in Oklahoma City in October. Her photo is one of many images of missing girls that have been circulated on social media.
Native American women living on reservations are murdered at alarmingly high rates. In some counties, the number is more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice. Nationwide, murder is the third-leading cause of death for indigenous women. Thousands more face the threat of violence and assault. “I hear these stories almost every day where native mothers are preparing their daughters for when they’re raped,” says Sarah Deer, a lawyer, activist and professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas. “Not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”
Eighty-four percent of American Native and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice. Of that group, more than half experienced sexual violence. Nearly all of these women were attacked by someone from a different racial group -- a rarity for most violent crime victims. A total of 5,656 cases for missing native women or girls had been entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database by the end of 2017, with 633 of those cases still active. That’s 0.7 percent of all active NCIC missing persons cases, a seemingly small share.
But those numbers only tell a fraction of the story. Many native people choose not to report crimes, a result of long-existing tensions between police and indigenous communities. When a crime is reported, police agencies do not always prioritize missing native cases. What’s more, different police departments have different requirements for how they share case information with national databases like the NCIC. Other inconsistencies with data collection and jurisdictional communication complicate things even further.
The fact is that native women and girls are going missing around North America, and no one knows exactly how many. The problem isn’t new, but federal and state lawmakers have been slow to address it. That’s beginning to change: Bills have been introduced in recent years in Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington state that aim to build tribal relations, collect research, promote transparency and provide resources to law enforcement. But with native communities divided across 50 states, thousands of counties and more than 300 federal reservations, pinpointing a solution will not be an easy thing to do.
Annita Lucchesi, a human trafficking survivor, knows firsthand the dangers native women face in their day-to-day lives. Now a doctoral student with the University of Lethbridge in Canada, Lucchesi was frustrated with the lack of data on women who go missing around the United States and Canada. Four years ago, she decided to start compiling information herself “by any means necessary.” Canadian news media had already begun discussing missing native cases as a larger national problem. But little of that was happening in the United States. Lucchesi filed Freedom of Information Act requests, waded through news archives and online missing persons databases, reached out to native families, and scoured social media pages looking for cases. Today she operates the largest database specifically targeting missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, transgender individuals and two-spirit people, a traditional third-gender category that’s recognized by many native communities. Her database now includes cases dating back to the 1900s for about 3,500 missing and murdered individuals, but she estimates an additional 20,000 need to be added.
Lucchesi’s research has received widespread news coverage over the last two years, helping to push the conversation about missing natives into the spotlight. “I think the most important thing is that it’s been healing for families to have that sense of validation, to have that sense of finally being heard,” she says. “Because so many families never get the chance to be heard.”
“So many families never get the chance to be heard,” says Annita Lucchesi. (Courtesy of the University of Lethbridge)
Like many other advocates, Lucchesi says the problem is rooted in systematic racism and colonialism. American Indian and Alaska Native people are not only among the country’s smallest minority populations, but they also have very little legislative representation. Just this year, Democratic Reps. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas were sworn in as the country’s first Native American congresswomen. Of the country’s 7,383 state legislators, only 82 are Native American. For generations, native people have felt erased from society and treated as an afterthought; that history, say Lucchesi and others, also manifests in the way missing native cases are processed and investigated by law enforcement.
State and local agencies face wide-ranging challenges when it comes to addressing any missing or unidentified persons case. Bodies may sit unidentified for years. Scores of prosecutable homicides go unsolved. Many agencies lack resources, manpower and training in a number of areas. In Native American communities, these shortcomings are even more apparent.
Lucchesi partnered with the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) to release a report last November assessing the “national data crisis” surrounding missing indigenous women and girls. Researchers contacted law enforcement agencies in 71 U.S. cities. Some 48 of them either did not provide data or “provided partial data with significant compromises.” While the report samples a small share of all U.S. cities, UIHI nonetheless provides one of the most comprehensive assessments available of police data collection on Native American cases. Among the challenges highlighted by the report are racial misclassifications of victims. Police in Fargo, N.D., for example, told researchers their data system defaults to white if a victim’s race is not specified in a missing persons report. In cases from Seattle, victims marked “N” for Negro in the 1960s and ’70s were often misinterpreted to be Native American. Or consider Billings, Mont. The UIHI report identified 17 cases there that were not in law enforcement records, the second highest of the 71 cities after Gallup, N.M. On the whole, natives accounted for 30 percent of Montana’s missing women and girls in July 2017, despite making up just 3 percent of the state’s population.
Racial stereotypes about substance abuse, sex work or criminal history among native people also prompt some law enforcement agencies to take a missing persons report less seriously, researchers say. “There are times when police departments will ask questions that perhaps they don’t ask of white communities,” says Esther Lucero, chief executive officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board, which oversees UIHI. “‘Are you involved in sex trafficking? Are you a drug user?’ All of these questions that begin to change the narrative and shift blame onto the victim.”
When a native person goes missing, one of the fundamental questions is who’s in charge. “Specifically, when you are in Indian Country, jurisdiction gets really weird,” says Caroline LaPorte, senior policy adviser on native affairs at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. “In a lot of these cases, there’s confusion by law enforcement about who is supposed to respond. Is it state law enforcement or Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement? Or is it the FBI?”
There are approximately 326 reservations under federal jurisdiction. Tribal police are typically the first line of defense for crimes committed on reservations. But there’s a catch: A 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision stripped tribal police and courts of the right to criminally prosecute non-native offenders. The reauthorization of the U.S. Violence Against Women Act in 2013 partially restored these rights, allowing tribes to investigate, prosecute, convict and sentence non-natives in cases of domestic or dating violence. Even with the change, tribal police are underfunded and understaffed. For example, about 50 officers patrol South Dakota’s 3,500-square-mile Pine Ridge Reservation, an area that’s larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Complicating the issue further are reservations in half a dozen states -- Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin -- that fall under state jurisdiction, not federal. And what if a resident of a tribal reservation is abducted or murdered off the reservation? Jurisdictional nuances like these can significantly slow down investigations.
The Violence Against Women Act is up for reauthorization again this year. Native activists want to amend the law to extend tribal criminal jurisdiction of non-natives in cases of child abuse, sex trafficking, rape and murder. That change would help clear up some jurisdictional challenges for much of Indian Country. But more than 70 percent of native people do not live on reservations. For states and localities where most natives live, solutions may come only after governments improve their data.
Washington state Republican Rep. Gina Mosbrucker is one of the lawmakers leading the effort to address that problem. “We knew that there is no number in the state of Washington [on missing native women]. There was no database.” The ability to provide hard numbers -- even an estimate -- can help lawmakers assess how extensive the problem is and where to allocate funding.
A march through downtown Toppenish, Wash., on the Yakama Indian Reservation, to bring awareness to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. (Jake Parrish, Yakima Herald-Republic)
The unsolved indigenous cases also highlight broader, more systemic challenges with the way this country handles missing persons reports. States and localities each have their own missing persons databases that differ from the FBI’s NCIC database. All of these are also different from the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. That database, known as NamUs, was launched in 2007 as part of an effort to enhance data sharing across jurisdictions and improve access to forensic services to help solve cases.
One significant difference between the NamUs and the NCIC databases is public access. Unlike with NCIC, the general public has the ability to submit information or search for someone directly on NamUs. The submitted profile -- verified by the NamUs team -- contains details such as physical descriptions, last known whereabouts or the clothing a potential victim was wearing. NamUs staff can also upload and view biometric information such as fingerprints and dental records. A 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated that “in fiscal year 2015, 3,170 long-term missing persons cases were reported to NamUs while 84,401 missing persons records reported to NCIC became long-term cases.” It added that “inefficiencies exist in the use of information on missing and unidentified persons primarily because there is no mechanism to share information between the systems.”
Part of the challenge for the NamUs team is building awareness about their services among both the public and the police. Many law enforcement agencies aren’t even aware that NamUs exists. Only four states -- Illinois, Michigan, New York and Tennessee -- require law enforcement agencies to enter missing persons records into NamUs. One federal bill, dubbed “Billy’s Law,” would have addressed some of these concerns by combining the NamUs and NCIC databases. Introduced in the U.S. House in 2011, the bill never made it out of committee. “I really wish there was a way that as a state we could mandate all being on the same system,” says Greg Wilking, an officer with the Salt Lake City Police Department. “We have 14 jurisdictions in this valley alone, and we are now trying to move toward a valley-wide [data] system.”
Lawmakers have introduced some pieces of legislation specifically aimed at indigenous cases. Savanna’s Act, first introduced in Congress in 2017, would mandate updated data, standardized law enforcement guidelines, and training for law enforcement agencies in addressing cases of missing and murdered indigenous people. The measure passed the Senate but stalled in the House; it was reintroduced this year. At the state level, legislation has been introduced in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota seeking to improve communication between state, local and tribal authorities to investigate missing persons cases, in addition to tracking just how many cases there are.
Many places are looking to Washington state as a model. Lawmakers in Olympia last year passed legislation championed by Mosbrucker that tasks the Washington State Patrol (WSP) to work with tribes, local law enforcement and the Department of Justice to compile data on missing native women. The measure also directs the WSP to issue a final report, due in June, with recommendations for how to increase resources. The agency hosted meetings with native communities around the state to hear their stories and get a sense of where to begin, says WSP Capt. Monica Alexander. Still, finding concrete numbers for the final report has proven to be difficult. “The only way we can help the legislature see the problem and advocate for funding is to be able to get information,” she says. “It’s been really wonderful meeting people and opening the dialogue, but it’s been really challenging because I don’t feel like I have anything tangible to take back.”
Mosbrucker says she understands the difficulties of gathering comprehensive information, but she is not waiting for the final report to take action. In January, she introduced another bill that would establish two tribal liaison positions for the WSP to build better relations between tribes and law enforcement. It would also establish a task force to develop a “best practices protocol” for police to follow.
Mosbrucker says she hopes to see more from other states. “It’s not a tribal versus non-tribal issue,” she says. “We have to find these people, they’re in every single state -- moms and daughters and aunts. We have to find answers and we have to find resources.”
Today on the Yakama Reservation, 200 miles from the Washington Legislature, Rosenda Strong’s family and friends are still searching. It’s been six months since her sister’s disappearance, and Cissy has mixed emotions as law enforcement agencies continue their investigation. Rosenda’s photo still circulates on social media and at local businesses and agencies, but the press coverage has slowed. At this point, Cissy says all she can do is keep sharing her sister’s story, pushing for change and hoping that answers will one day come.