Nov. 22, 2023
AG Ferguson wins largest-ever federal Emmett Till grant for Indigenous cold case project
$1.5M will fund statewide tribal partnerships to research, inventory unsolved cases
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today that his office will partner with tribes across Washington to research, identify and create an inventory of cold cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people that date back more than 40 years.
The federal Emmett Till Cold Case Investigations and Prosecution Program supports state, local and tribal law enforcement efforts to investigate and prosecute cold cases from before 1980 that involve racially motivated crimes or civil rights violations. Ferguson’s office won $1.5 million, the largest-ever grant from this program.
The Attorney General’s Office originally applied for a $750,000 grant, only to receive double the amount requested. It’s the largest award granted since the Department of Justice launched the program in 2020. Five tribes — Colville, Cowlitz, Puyallup, Spokane and Suquamish — submitted letters of support for the project.
This grant project will support the work of the new Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Cold Case Unit in the Attorney General’s Office. The new unit’s primary purpose is to assist local and tribal law enforcement agencies to solve cases involving Indigenous people. Ferguson recently appointed Brian George, a veteran investigator and member of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, to lead the unit.
“Significant work remains to fully understand the scale of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people,” Ferguson said. “This grant builds upon our nation-leading response to the crisis. It provides resources that are necessary for strengthening tribal partnerships that are critical to seeking justice for victims.”
Tribal archives are unique, complex and sacred. To honor that sacredness and uphold tribal sovereignty, this project will involve a partnership with tribes to both directly engage in the research, and to develop the methodologies for conducting it. All five tribes that submitted letters in support of the project also shared their intent to work with the Attorney General’s Office on the project.
The federal grant will allow the office to hire two full-time staff, who will travel across the state over the next three years and work closely with up to 10 tribes to identify pre-1980 cold cases. Each tribe will receive compensation to assist in the research.
Together, Ferguson’s office and the partner tribes will develop an inventory of cases to potentially be investigated and prosecuted, with help from the Attorney General’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Cold Case Unit.
Additionally, the office plans to contract with a research expert who specializes in tribal archives and a storyteller who will help preserve stories uncovered in the research. Both will center tribal needs and culturally attuned best practices to ensure the work is done in a respectful and appropriate manner.
Background on the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis
American Indian and Alaskan Native women and people experience violence at much higher rates than the general population. The national Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that homicide is the sixth-leading cause of death for Indigenous women and girls and the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous men. A recent federal study reported that Native American women are murdered at rates 10 times the national average in some jurisdictions.
According to data from the Homicide Investigation Tracking System in the Attorney General’s Office, Indigenous victims are 5% of the unresolved cases throughout the state, while making up less than 2% of the population. Due to reporting practices, racial misclassification, data collection and jurisdictional issues, the actual disparity is likely even more significant.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that there are approximately 4,200 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people. A 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle found that Washington had the second-highest number of cases in the country.
Background on the Emmett Till grant
The Emmett Till Cold Case Investigations and Prosecution Program launched in 2020 as part of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which was introduced by the late civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis.
The law went into effect in October 2008. It authorized the federal government to reopen racially based cold cases, specifically from the civil rights era, for further investigation and prosecution. As of December 2021, 118 cold cases across the country were closed by federal and local law enforcement agencies as a result of the law.
Both the law and the grant program are named for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a married white woman in a grocery store.
The men who abducted, tortured and lynched Till were prosecuted, but an all-white jury acquitted them. They later confessed to the murder in a magazine interview.
Till’s mother insisted that her son have a public funeral service with an open casket. Thousands attended and the images brought national attention to racial violence against Black Americans. Till became a symbol in the civil rights movement.
Recent Emmett Till grant recipients include the City of Tulsa, which received $1 million last year for its police department to pursue forensic genetic genealogy identifications for potential victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In 2021, Alabama’s Jefferson County was awarded nearly $500,000 for a civil rights cold case unit as well as community education and truth and reconciliation work.
The Washington State Attorney General’s Office is the first grant recipient to use the funding to focus exclusively on cold cases involving Indigenous victims.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force
Ferguson convened the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force in 2021 using a framework adopted by the Legislature. The task force is part of a coordinated statewide response to the urgent crisis of Indigenous people who go missing, are victims of homicide, or experience other types of violence. Many national leaders in tackling this crisis serve on the task force.
The 23-member task force combines institutional and cultural knowledge of Indigenous communities, tribal nations and state agencies to center the experiences of survivors and families. The work is approached in a way that is responsive to communities and grounded in Indigenous values.
Unanimous recommendations from the task force have resulted in several Attorney General Request bills enacted into law.
An alert system that helps identify and locate missing Indigenous women and people launched in 2022. The legislation was requested by Ferguson and sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, who serves on the Attorney General’s task force. It is the first alert system of its kind in the nation.
In 2022, the task force unanimously recommended the creation of a cold case unit in the Attorney General’s Office to focus exclusively on cases involving Indigenous people. Earlier this year, Ferguson partnered with Rep. Lekanoff and Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, to propose legislation creating that unit. The bill passed unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Confronting shameful legacy of boarding schools
During the 2023 session, the Legislature directed the Attorney General’s Office to convene the Truth & Reconciliation Tribal Advisory Committee to study boarding schools in Washington.
These schools “deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children,” according to an investigative report released by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
The report from May 2022 detailed more than 400 boarding schools across 37 states, between 1819 and 1969, that were part of the federal Indian boarding school system. It identified 15 boarding schools in Washington. Research from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition identified 17 — including two schools that did not show any evidence of federal support. This does not account for all schools and institutions that targeted American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation, such as orphanages and asylums.
The Tribal Advisory Committee will build on this knowledge to study the full extent of the impacts of boarding schools and other cultural assimilation practices in Washington state. The federal Emmett Till grant could be used to identify and document cold cases uncovered as part of the committee’s work. Potential cases related to this work could be referred to the new cold case unit.
The committee will hold the first of its public listening sessions in 2024 and submit a report in 2025.