Advocates Say Washington State’s Missing Indigenous Persons Alert System Is a Big Step
- Washington state will launch an alert system for missing Indigenous people in the state.
- For years, Indigenous women have vanished across the United States and gotten little attention.
- Indigenous advocates say that Washington’s system is a step in the right direction, and should expand.
Washington state is launching an alert system to notify the public when an Indigenous person goes missing, and some advocates say it’s long overdue.
The system, which was introduced by Democratic representative Debra Lekanoff, aims to operate similar to an “Amber” or “Silver” alert system. If an indigenous person goes missing, law enforcement could send out an alert, which would be broadcasted by phone, highway signs, and press release.
The effort is the first of it’s kind in the US, where Indigenous people go missing, get killed, and experience violence at higher rates than other communities.
“I think what they’re trying to do is really good,” said Meskee Yanabah Yatsayte, who runs Navajo Nation Missing Persons Updates, an organization that looks for missing persons from the Navajo community, told Insider.
“It’s a big start.” she said. “It’s a step.”
In many Indigenous communities, news of missing people is shared by word of mouth
Yatsayte, who, first got involved in advocacy for missing and murdered Indigenous people in 2013, when she noticed that Navajo Nation had no unified place to alert the community when someone went missing.
People, at the time, were sharing news by word of mouth, or to their personal Facebook pages, or a variety of swap groups, she said.
Yatsayte realized that wasn’t efficient and started a Facebook page that became the go-to place to share that information.
A few years later, the brutal 2016 killing of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike, triggered wave of devastation on the reservation. Yatsayte was in college at the time and in one of her classes a professor sent out homework assignments through a group text message to 200 students.
With Ashlynne on her mind, she had an idea that she could use similar technology to create a makeshift alert system for the Navajo Nation.
After what she believes was hundreds of hours of research, she found a free app that allowed her to issue alerts to anyone who signed up.
Eventually about 23,000 people had signed up for those messages, which were filtered into three categories of alerts: “Coral” for missing persons with medical issues, “Turquoise” for missing children, and “Sterling” for missing elderly.
“I wanted it to mimic the stones we used for our jewelry,” she said.
After a few years, though, the app began charging for each text message, and it wasn’t sustainable.
Yatsayte believes if indigenous communities could team up with the state governments, like in Washington, this kind of alert system would help countless families.
“It’s going to be a good way to really help and connect the communities together,” Yatsayte told Insider. “If we go through it federally it’s going to take years and years and years.”
Using the spotlight
Last year, the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman in Wyoming, captivated the nation.
Her case prompted an enormous following across the United States both by news media and on social media — eventually becoming the subject of documentaries.
The story of Petito, who was killed by her boyfriend, also triggered a long-overdue realization that Indigenous women who go missing or are murdered don’t get a fraction of the attention that she and other young, attractive, white women do.
Outlets — including Insider — began telling that story, too.
“We have been ignored for so long. Our people, it’s like they don’t exist. ” Yatsayte said. “I’m glad all of our families are speaking out because our missing and murdered people are no longer able to speak for themselves.”
And it’s not just women, Yatsayte said, noting that she has recorded more missing Navajo men than women.
Yatsayte, herself, knows the trauma of losing family.
Her mother’s common law husband went missing years ago and was found killed.
In 2020, in the height of the pandemic, her uncle went missing on his way home from a walk. The barricades closing off trails in their town had caused her uncle to take a different route home.
Her family searched for him for a month and Yatsayte said she eventually found him dead.
“And my brother just got murdered a month ago in his sleep,” Yatsayte said, matter-of-factly.
Police still haven’t determined who killed her brother, Brandon Kaseca. He was shot in his bed in Shawnee, Oklahoma. It’s been difficult to work on the case with her family in Oklahoma virtually, she said.
“I’ve gone through it all,” Yatsayte told Insider. “Missing and murdered.”