Native American lawmaker aims to address MMIWP epidemic in Washington State

Washington State Rep. Debra Lekanoff  has spent more than 20 years advocating on behalf of Native communities and speaking out about missing and murdered Indigenous people. She’s brought those experience with her to the Washington state legislature.

“Right now I’m the only Native American legislator on both sides,” Lekanoff said. “And I’m carrying more buckets of water than any state legislator right now when it comes to representation.”

Lekanoff represents the 40th legislative district, which includes parts of Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties. She said she’s the first lawmaker in the state’s history to have her traditional name on her name tag and on the sign outside her office door.

“Normally, this is only English: only the white man’s language can be used in the state and no one has ever asked. And it was the respect of the Washington legislature to be able to remove that barrier and say, why not?” Lekanoff said.

She’s also a Native American woman raising a Native American daughter in a world that’s especially dangerous for Native American women. But she’s using her position as a lawmaker to make the world a safer place for families like here.

Lekanoff was instrumental in the creation of the first-ever statewide alert system specifically for Indigenous people.

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Washington state launched the Missing Indigenous Person Alert System over the summer, it’s helped find nearly a dozen missing people. The first time Lekanoff saw the alert system in action, she was driving on I-5, headed from Olympia to Anacortes.

“It was on every one of the large digital signs on the highway and it it brought tears to my eyes,” Lekanoff said. “The reality that we could find who has gone missing, that we can help them.”

Lekanoff said she thought about a mom sitting at home by herself, waiting for the phone to ring with news about her missing loved one, feeling frustrated, angry and alone.”

“But the entire state of Washington is helping that person find their loved one and that person who’s gone missing, knows that they will never be alone,” Lekanoff said.

Lekanoff said the system has been so successful that California has adopted their own model for a statewide missing Indigenous person alert system.

“Now we need Oregon and Idaho and Alaska to do the same,” Lekanoff said.

Lekanoff also serves on the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, which issued its first report in August, making recommendations for steps authorities should take moving forward to address the MMIWP crisis.

Recommendations include making sure there’s better communication between families and law enforcement, as well as improving data sharing between agencies.

“You would think it would be so easy to have our public safety officers working collectively,” Lekanoff said. “But, as always, jurisdiction plays a big part of the barriers that we’re looking to remove.”

They’re also hoping to establish a cold case unit within the Washington State Attorney General’s Office to help law enforcement better collaborate on investigations involving missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Lekanoff said another resource they’re hoping to provide to investigators is additional crime labs to process evidence more quickly and efficiently.

“The idea and concept is can we work with the feds and the tribes in the state to create three other crime labs,” Lekanoff said.

Lekanoff said finding funding for programs to help address the MMIWP crisis hasn’t been difficult because their proposals have been met with overwhelmingly positive, bipartisan support.

” There’s never been a colleague of mine on either side of the floor, or either side of the road, that says no, we cannot do that,” Lekanoff said. “It’s always a yes, we must do this.”

Lekanoff said she hopes the changes they’ve been able to make so far will make Indigenous people living in Washington state feel safer and know that if they go missing, the whole state will be looking for them.

“Never to be alone, never to be forgotten, never to feel as if we as Native Americans don’t matter,” Lekanoff said.

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