Carolyn Deford wasn’t too worried when she first got a call saying her mother didn’t show up to meet a friend.
Her mother, Leona LeClair Kinsey, a member of the Puyallup Tribe, was fiercely independent, Deford said, and it seemed likely she had just gone off on her own for a day or two.
Deford’s concern grew as she was unable to contact her mother throughout the week. And with Kinsey’s history of substance abuse, she knew her mom wouldn’t want her contacting the police.
As a single mother with two daughters working overtime, it was nine days before Deford was able to visit her mother’s house where she lived off-reservation in La Grande, Oregon.
She found her mom’s dog left alone, and Kinsey took her dog everywhere.
“I started calling her more frequently, (but) she didn’t respond.”
That was nearly 20 years ago, and Deford’s mother still hasn’t been found. She is one of the unknown number of missing or murdered Native American women who disappear each year.
A new Washington law that takes effect in June aims to provide more information on how many women are missing.
The law’s sponsor, Rep. Gina McCabe, R-Goldendale, said it tries to fix a lack of coordination between different law enforcement and government agencies at state, federal and tribal levels.
It directs the Washington State Patrol and the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs to work with community and tribal law enforcement to strengthen relations, and the U.S. Department of Justice to share more information and coordinate resources. It also requires the WSP to do a study on how to increase state resources for reporting and identifying missing Native American women in Washington.
McCabe said she became aware of the problem after watching the movie “Wind River,” which follows the story of a murdered Native American woman. Around the same time, she said, an old high school friend reached out to her after learning about the high rate of missing and murdered women while working to get her Modoc tribal card.
Native American communities often feel the police don’t prioritize searches for their missing women because of stereotypes and stigmatization, Deford said.
Many Native women have been the victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence, which leads to higher rates of substance abuse to cope, she said. There’s a tendency to blame the victims when they go missing, or when they are raped or murdered, Deford said.
If someone’s gotten in trouble with the law before, they’re more likely to be brushed aside, she said.
“In small towns, the police may get tired of dealing with them,” she said.
After her mother went missing, Deford felt like she was doing all the work to find her mother herself, with little help from police.
“From that point on we didn’t really hear or see anything,” she said. “The police were just taking (the information) and letting us do the work.”
Deford now runs a Facebook page to help find missing or murdered Native Americans where law enforcement efforts have failed.
Over the past several months she said she’s met over 40 people who are friends or family members of missing persons – many who live in Washington. But there are far fewer missing Native Americans on the state patrol website or the federal registry, NamUs.
It’s a best practice for law enforcement to add their missing persons to NamUs, she said, but it’s not required. That means there’s no accurate data on how many people are really missing, she said.
Human trafficking is also a danger for Native American women, said Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Colville Tribe. Laws about jurisdiction between different law enforcement and government authorities make prosecuting nontribal members who commit a crime on reservations incredibly difficult.
“Our women are not taken seriously,” she said.
As a teenager, Sovereign was taken from a party by gang members who wanted to send her to Hawaii for sex trafficking. She was eventually returned home thanks to friends and family with connections to the American Indian Movement.
In some cases, law enforcement officials who should be informed on the problem never even find out about it.
Capt. Monica Alexander, legislative liaison for the WSP, said the new law will help agencies start sharing information to find more missing persons. That lack of coordination is partly why many missing persons don’t end up in the online databases like NamUs, or the WSP’s missing persons list.
“What (the law) will do is to help us communicate openly with the tribes to talk about resources that we have available,” she said.
Many missing women never made it onto the state patrol website because their friends and family were unaware of how to navigate the reporting system, Alexander said. Talking to tribal members and sharing information is crucial.
“If there are a large number of people missing – women, children, anybody – and we don’t know about it, we can’t problem-solve our way through it,” she said.
Multiple factors, such as sexual violence, domestic violence and substance abuse, make Native women more vulnerable.
A study by the National Institute of Justice found that over 84 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native women experience violence in their lifetime. This includes an increased risk for of sexual and physical violence, psychological abuse and stalking.
Both Sovereign and Deford said they also believe the numbers are underreported. Because so many women are affected by abuse, everyone knows someone who has it worse than them.
“To the tribal community, that’s just life,” Deford said. “(It’s) a normal sense of chaos or insecurity.”
Native Americans also disproportionately fall victim to homicide. A study by the Center for Disease Control found they had a higher rate of homicide deaths than any other group.
To fix the problem, more tribes need to be willing to work with state governments, Sovereign said. Only a few tribes have compact agreements with the state or acknowledge state laws that could help protect Native women, such as the Violence Against Women Act.
“There are a lot of tribes that claim sovereignty and don’t want to work with the state,” she said.
Deford said she doesn’t think most tribes will be willing to sacrifice sovereignty by entering into a state compact agreement. Too many historical injustices make many tribes distrustful of nontribal government.
Instead, she would like to see the state allocate money to help tribes set up their own response protocols and provide law enforcement with more resources to help families.
Police cases that don’t make progress within a certain amount of time should be handed off to bigger agencies with more resources like the state patrol or the FBI, she said.
Sovereign and other activists are planning an eight-day march from Blaine, Washington, to Olympia. It begins May 5 – the national day of awareness for missing and murdered Native women and girls – and ends on Mother’s Day.
Many activists are Native American women trying to ensure a better future for their children, Sovereign said.
“Myself, my sister and my mother all have been raped,” she said. “I have two daughters, and I’m very concerned about their future. I don’t want them to go through domestic abuse or become sexually assaulted, or even missing or murdered.”