Warning: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives

Washington State has the second highest number of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives cases in the country, according to a study by the Urban Indian Health Institute. Dawn Pullin, the tribal liaison for the Washington State Patrol, plays a role in the solution to this crisis that dates back to first contact with colonial settlers.

The Washington State Patrol actively tracks and updates missing Indigenous persons cases. As of April 24, there were more than 120 active cases of missing Indigenous people in the state.

Pullin, a citizen of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, is the person who answers the phone when an Indigenous person goes missing in Washington. House Bill 1713, a 2019 measure aimed at improving law enforcement response to missing and murdered Native American women, created her position. She stepped into her role as tribal liaison for the Washington State Patrol in December of 2020.

Pullin, who grew up mainly on the Spokane Indian Reservation, knows firsthand the importance of helping families with missing and murdered loved ones. When she was 20 years old, her mother Gloria J. White was murdered. Pullin says the trauma caused by losing a loved one to violence is what motivates her to help others.

“I know one of the reasons that I'm here is because I want to make a difference and I want to be part of the solution,” Pullin said. “I have direct experience, so I bring to the table the empathy and compassion, and I understand how families are feeling. That's why I want to help.”

Because she knows the trauma and stark realities of MMIR first hand, Pullin makes herself available.

“So when you call me at nine o'clock at night, and you want to share something with me, I'm going to pick up the phone,” she added.

Note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Jarrette Werk for Underscore News + Report for America: Can you tell me about your work as the Washington State Patrol tribal liaison? What are the responsibilities of your role? What does a typical day look like for you?

Dawn Pullin: The first thing that I like to point out is that we're responsible for building that trust between the government and the tribes and tribal people. If you know anything about history, I always say, that's a hard lift for these positions to accomplish, but at least they've created these positions to start those conversations and build those bridges, even though I don't think it will happen in my lifetime.

When you work in crisis, you don't have typical days. Somebody might call me at 9 pm, somebody might call me on Sunday, and then it might be quiet for a couple of days. It just depends on the day.

JW: You've been in the role for a couple of years now — what have been some of the successes that you've seen, or some of the areas that have room for improvement?

DP: The first success has been the creation of these positions, because there's not very many in the country, so there's no model that we can refer to. We had to create this ourselves. The Washington State Patrol leadership was very supportive of Patti (Gosch, former tribal liaison from 2019-2024) and I, and in building this program how we saw fit.

When Patti first came on she started a deep dive into the data. What she also learned is that the community wanted to see that list of missing people so she created that list and published it every two weeks. She listened to the community and she produced that list, which I think is great because everybody refers to it.

JW: Which tribal nations have you worked with? Do you reach out to specific nations or do they reach out to you? Do you work with tribal nations outside Washington State?

DP: We have 29 tribes in Washington State, but we help whoever calls us. I've even had conversations with somebody in Oklahoma and Kansas so we're not limited, especially if they think that their loved one is in Washington State.

JW: There are a lot of people working on MMIP issues in Washington State. I’m curious how your various roles work together on this issue. Do you collaborate with Asa K. Washines, tribal liaison for Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson? What about the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force?

DP: We're always in communication. If it's not in person, or on the phone, we share email information back and forth. I haven't been assigned to be officially part of the task force, but I attend all the meetings so I'm in-the-know about what's happening, mostly.

JW: Washington State Police is the state collection point for information about missing Indigenous people. One big difficulty in addressing these cases is that police often assign false racial categories to people who go missing, as well as people they arrest. How does your role support proper racial and ethnic classifications for missing persons cases across the state?

DP: If you file a missing persons report on your loved one and they're not on our list, and you want to know why, and you reach out to us, we'll try to find out why. It could just be a racial mis-identifier, and then we'll let the law enforcement agency know that your loved one is Indigenous and they need to change that. Either they'll cooperate or they won't because we have no authority. These aren't our cases; it was not our jurisdiction or the clearing house.

With that said, if you filed a missing persons report and you want to know if it was entered into the system, I can look that up for you. I can give you reassurance that, yes, they're in the system. If they come across law enforcement, and they run their name, they'll see that they're missing and will contact that law enforcement agency so that gives the family some reassurance.

JW: As the person in this tribal liaison role with the Washington State Patrol, what do you think our readers should know?

DP: We always want the public to know that there's no such thing as waiting 24 hours to report a missing loved one. The moment you think they are missing, you need to call your local law enforcement and file that missing persons report.

I already know we lead all the bad statistics: homicide, suicide, domestic violence, sexual assault. I get all that. I know one of the reasons that I'm here is because I want to make a difference, and I want to be part of the solution. And again, I have direct experience. So I bring to the table the empathy and compassion, and I understand how families are feeling. That's why I want to help.

Lead image: Dawn Pullin, a citizen of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, has served as the Tribal Liaison for the Washington State Patrol since 2020 after legislation created the position in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Pullin)

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....