'Overlooked and not spoken about:' Taking a deeper look at missing and murdered Indigenous people in WA

Not seen, not heard and not found: Flyers and photos of the missing are just some of the many native people who disappeared in Washington state.

110 names are on the list and more than 50 of them disappeared just this year, most of them are teenagers.

Those numbers, we’re told are inaccurate, because incidents of violence against native women and people in our state is severely underreported.

It has become a crisis.

"I feel that this issue has gone on, overlooked and not spoken about for many years," said Lucy Smartlowit.

Smartlowit and Robyn Pebeahsy are members of Yakama Nation and co-hosts of the War Cry podcast.

"We discuss historical aspects that contribute to this epidemic," said Pebeahsy.

"We are indigenous people, we are from this community, we are talking with family members who know of us or know us personally and I feel like it was also a turning point for us to highlight the issues around missing and murdered indigenous people," said Smartlowit.

Mysterious deaths have occurred since the 1980s on or around Yakama's 1.3 million-acre reservation.

One case that has garnered a lot of attention, the murder of 31-year-old mother of four, Rosenda Strong. She was last seen at the Legends Casino in Toppenish in 2018. Her remains were found in an abandoned freezer on July 4, 2019.

Strong's case remains unsolved.

"It’s not just because no one is watching these women or they’re not being safe or anything like that. It has nothing to do with that. It’s a lot of these complicated historical things that feed into what's happening right now.

So we asked, what exactly is happening?

"For too long, we’ve been grappling with this epidemic with the lack of resources, lack of information being exchanged and frankly a lack of political will to address this head on," Washington State Attorney General, Bob Ferguson.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the creation of a taskforce to address systemic challenges surrounding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People.

Nearly two dozen representatives from Washington cities, Washington State Patrol and various tribes such as Yakama Nation and Lummi Nation are all coming together for the first time to address these challenges.

"We have failed in a few ways to not take action in some things that protect women and protect people," said Annie Forsman-Adams, policy analyst for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Taskforce.

It’s a complex issue, starting with how to report a missing native person and to whom.

You have tribal police, city police, county law enforcement, state police and the FBI.

If a crime is committed on tribal land, tribal police are the point of contact.

However, tribal courts can't handle major crimes like homicide so another law enforcement agency has to step in.

If the victim is a tribal member, but the crime happens outside of the reservation, tribal police are notified and the city or county where it happens, technically has jurisdiction.

The problem here, not all of these agencies communicate with each other and not all of them share information on one database.

"There is an issue with communication and it will be up to the taskforce to study that to hear from folks, find out what exactly is going on and make recommendations on how simple or complex the fix might be for that issue," said Attorney General Ferguson.

For tribal communities, having a taskforce to sift through these challenges is a hopeful start.

"Indigenous people are starting to finally realize their power, to be able to say hey we are important people, we are not disposable, we are not just somebody that is going to be forgotten we have people who love and care for us as well too," said Smartlowit.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Taskforce is meeting on Thursday, Dec. 2 at the Legends Casino Event Center in Toppenish from noon to 5 p.m. That meeting is open to the public and will be streamed online.

Stay connected with FOX 13 News on all platforms:
DOWNLOAD: FOX 13 News and Weather Apps
WATCH: FOX 13 News Live
SUBSCRIBE: FOX 13 on YouTube
DAILY BRIEF: Sign Up For Our Newsletter
FOLLOW: Facebook Twitter Instagram