One-year-old alert system raises awareness about missing Indigenous people in California.
Example of a recent Feather Alert in California that helped located a teen girl. Photo: California Highway Patrol
APTN News: Native Americans in California are assessing the first year of the Feather Alert system that came into effect on Jan. 24, 2022.
The statewide program operated by the California Highway Patrol issues public information about missing Indigenous persons and co-ordinates law enforcement response between tribal, local, state and federal policing agencies.
“This is something that’s not new within Indian country and the Native American population,” said Assembly member James Ramos, who spearheaded the passing of the Feather Law. “The crisis of missing and murdered Native American women, Native American persons has been going on for generations.”
Ramos chaired a hearing with politicians, tribal leaders and police agencies this week to assess the first year of the alert system. The Feather Alert has helped in many cases, he said, but still presents barriers.
The first Native American elected to the California Assembly noted the state ranked fifth a year ago for “not bringing resolve or investigating missing and murders against Native American” persons and has fallen further to Number 8.
“We’re moving in the wrong direction,” the Assemblymember (D-San Bernardino) told a news conference prior to the hearing.
California has 110 federally recognized Indian tribes and about 100 reservations (or rancherios). It is one of four American states to introduce similar alert systems alongside Colorado, Washington and Oklahoma.
Wilton Rancherio Vice-Chair Raquel Williams called the alert system “life-saving legislation” for a segment of society more likely to go missing or be murdered. “I stand here today on the homelands both incredibly fearful but widely optimistic,” she said, “fearful knowing that 80 per cent of my Native sisters have experienced violence and face a murder rate up to 10 times the national average.”
Via social media
Feather Alerts are distributed via social media, a development not lost on Rhonda Morningstar Pope, chairwoman of Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians. “You go on social media and you see these Feather Alerts, whereas before you wouldn’t see anything,” she told reporters. “We couldn’t even make news media…
“We actually get news coverage now on these issues whereas before we never got that.”
The Feather Alert operates alongside the Amber Alert (children), Silver Alert (elderly or cognitively impaired), Ebony Alert (missing Black woman or person) and other alerts presently operating in California.
It’s something Leah Gazan, a First Nations woman and Winnipeg Centre MP (NDP), is working to implement in Canada. In 2023, she asked the Public Safety Minister for a Red Dress Alert to notify the public when an Indigenous woman, girl or Two-Spirit person goes missing.
“It’s been pushed for for a very long time,” she said in a telephone interview to APTN News. “I’m just heeding the calls as a long-time advocate in this area and bringing that voice to Parliament to fight for what many of us have fought for on the ground for years.”
Gazan said preliminary consultations are underway with search volunteers, First Nations police, families and advocates, and woman’s organizations. “There will be a preliminary report coming out in the near future that will outline the findings of the consultation,” she added.
Gazan noted there are thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada but a total figure has been elusive. “A lot of it relates to data collection and what is defined as a missing person,” she said.
Meanwhile, tribes need to continue to build on the awareness of the Feather Alert in California, said Regina Cuellar, Chairwoman of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. “Since it’s introduction and passing there is no under-stating the increase in overall awareness and advocacy in combatting the missing and murdered Indigenous people epidemic across the state,” she said.
“…While the Feather Alert remains a great resource for law enforcement agencies to better address a missing persons case, it does not get at the root cause of these cases.”
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