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August 08, 2023

‘Data genocide’ drives epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people

More attention should be given to Indigenous people who go missing or are murdered, says Abigail Echo-Hawk, executive vice president of the Seattle Urban Indian Health Board and the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Speaking at the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in Denver during the program “From Cradleboard to Shallow Grave: Boarding Schools, ICWA, and Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons, Echo-Hawk, an enrolled citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, said people don’t really understand the magnitude of the issue because of the underreporting of crimes and the lack of documentation of Indigenous people in police reports.

Fervent about changing the way the criminal justice system views Indigenous people, Echo-Hawk called the chaos associated with jurisdictional boundaries of crimes and who’s responsible for handling the case (depending on where the crime occurred) “structural racism.”

In order for the situation to improve for Native people, she said criminal justice and other government agencies must be required to keep better records of tribal-specific data.

In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute published a first-of-its-kind report on the rate of sexual assaults against American Indian and Alaskan women. She said of the 150 Native women in the study, 94% were sexually assaulted in their lifetime and only 8% had a conviction of their rapist.

“We continue to see implicit bias, stereotypes, prejudices and structural racism that has inhibited and holds back appropriate investigation, allocation of resources and prosecution of those who harm our communities,” Echo-Hawk said.

She called the crisis around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls a “data genocide.” “By eliminating us from the data with the non-collection of data, the resources allocations that we have a legal right to through our treaties are not being allocated.”

Echo-Hawk pointed to the work of her organization and similar ones, noting the legislation passed in Washington state and two recent federal laws, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act. Savanna’s Act aims to improve the federal response to missing or murdered Indigenous people. The Not Invisible Act focuses on developing recommendations to the Department of Interior and Justice Department to improve coordination of services and establish best practices between federal, state and tribal law enforcement, strengthen resources for survivors and victim’s families and combat the epidemic of Indigenous missing and murdered women and girls on reservations and in cities.

The Not Invisible Act was placed in the hands of the Department of Justice to achieve very specific outcomes, Echo-Hawk said. “And yet to this day almost four years later they have done almost none of it.”

Data gathering and training of law enforcement are among the pieces of the legislation that hasn’t been implemented, Echo-Hawk said, adding that a Government Accountability Office report confirmed that “DOJ is consistently failing Indian country in ensuring they’re following through on this legislation.”

In recent months, she said she has seen some improvement in how cases involving Indigenous women are being managed in Washington state.

“Challenging structural racism isn’t easy,” Echo-Hawk said. “It takes courage.”

Echo-Hawk hopes lawyers can take on more cases involving Indigenous people, be aware of implicit bias in the justice system and stand up for injustices where they see them. Help is needed on every level of the judiciary, whether a judge, lawyer or prosecutor.

“Your law degrees mean something, they mean something not only to you, but they mean something to communities in which you have opportunities to serve.”

She added, “It is together we will address this crisis and together that we will truly achieve what justice can and should be.”

Other speakers on the program were Beth Wright, an attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and Sheldon Spotted Elk, senior director of Judicial National Engagement at Casey Family Programs and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Panel moderator was Meredith Drent, chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court and chief justice of the Osage Nation Supreme Court in Tulalip, Washington.