Potential cold-case unit for missing and murdered Indigenous women

Maleda Sims and Sara Marshall

Statistics have shown disproportionate rates of disappearances, violence and murders in Indigenous communities. According to federal data, Indigenous women are four times more likely to go missing than White women and experience murder rates that are ten times the national average. 

In Washington, there are currently 110 unsolved murder cases involving Indigenous women. Indigenous men are also experiencing high rates of violence and murder – four out of five will experience violence in their lifetime. 

The Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force attempts to assess the systemic causes behind the high rate of disappearances and murders of Indigenous women and people.

First-year Lindsey Pasena-Littlesky is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). She cites failures in law enforcement as a reason the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force was created.

“The task force was created because the numbers of Indigenous women that are being filed as murdered or missing [is] unethical,” Pasena-Littlesky said. “The amount of police forces that have disregarded the severity of these women’s cases are now the reason why we have a cold case unit.” 

Following efforts of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, lawmakers have begun to consider creating a permanent cold-case unit. Cold cases include a wide range of violence, including, but not limited to, missing persons, sexual violence, unidentified bodies and murder. 

Debra Lekanoff, who is part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, sponsored the House Bill 1177. The bill has passed the legislature and is headed to the House floor. 

I have faith this task force will grow to be extremely effective,” Pasena-Littlesky said. “Their hearts, as well as families’ hearts, are still displaced from the day their daughters left casually and never returned abruptly.” 

Executive Director of Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) Steve Strachan spoke on the new bill. 

“WASPC supports SHB 1177, appreciates the work of the MMIWP Task Force and the work of our board member and task force representative Chief Sam White of the Lower Elwha Tribal Police Department,” Strachan said. 

Pasena-Littlesky stated her perspective on the relationship between CTUIR law enforcement and the CTUIR community.  

“The relationship is very community-oriented. Considering we have tribal police officers, we have a force dedicated to our communities’ protection,” Pasena-Littlesky said. “This is essential because our force understands our perspective, our fears and our homeland is everything we have. Native Americans have numerous stereotypes, and sometimes it can be difficult to communicate with non-tribal police officers because we just do not feel heard.”