In 1999, Carolyn DeFord's mother went to the grocery store and never came back. Leona DeClair Kinsey, of Puyallup and Yakama descent, has been missing for the last two decades, and last week, DeFord told state legislators that her family hasn't received help or media attention beyond the actions of small activist groups since.
"And so her case just sits in a desk, in a file cabinet, in a back room that you have to have somebody else take, you know, scheduled time to go find her folder," DeFord told legislators.
Leona LeClair Kinsey's case is part of what is described by friends and family members of missing and murdered indigenous women as an enormous and overlooked problem, one enabled by a gap in tribal, state, and federal jurisdictions that allows perpetrators to act with impunity. But it's also a problem that's been historically difficult to quantify and track. Two years ago, the Canadian government launched its own inquiry into the issue, and on Wednesday, Washington state legislators in the House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill directing the Washington State Patrol to study the problem, too.
"It's an issue that we hear about in Native community a lot," Elisabeth Guard, an associate at Native law firm Galanda Broadman, told The Stranger. "It's not an issue that's highly reported outside of Indian media, so I think it's important for the non-Native community to see what an issue it is."
According to data from the Department of Justice, indigenous women face astronomical rates of violence. A Department of Justice report published in 2010 concluded that American Indian and Alaska Native women are 1.7 times more likely than white women to experience violent crime within the last year and are more likely to experience violence from an interracial perpetrator. An estimated 56 percent surveyed in the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) said that they had experienced sexual violence, and 55.5 percent reported physical violence from a partner. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published last year reported that American Indian/Alaska Native women died at higher rates of homicide than any other group.
But the names of missing indigenous women often don't make it onto the state's missing and unidentified persons list. At last week's legislative hearing, Captain Monica Alexander of the Washington State Patrol testified that neither Kinsey's name, nor the name of another missing indigenous woman from South Seattle, were being tracked by the Patrol's missing person's unit.
One of the first comprehensive studies on violence against indigenous women, published by Amnesty International in 2006, criticized the jurisdictional problems that prevented these crimes from being tracked and prosecuted. "The US government has interfered with the ability of tribal justice systems to respond to crimes of sexual violence by underfunding tribal justice systems, prohibiting tribal courts from trying non-Indian suspects and limiting the custodial sentences which tribal courts can impose for any one offence," Amnesty reported at the time. And while federal prosecutors have the ability to file cases against perpetrators of violence against indigenous women, Amnesty's research concluded that authorities often chose not to prosecute them.
In the absence of a system to document abuse across tribal, state, and federal jurisdictions, the Washington State bill, if it passes the Senate, would direct the Washington state patrol to work with tribes and the governor's office of Indian affairs to generate a report identifying the scale of the problem, and barriers to addressing it, by June of 2019.
"We just do not have a centralized database that can demonstrate how many Native women are missing in this country," Guard, of Galanda Broadman, said. "Until we have that figure, we don't know how to address that problem. I think this is a really good first step for Washington to take."