This week, in the wake of a horrific tragedy, justice activists pushed the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women into the spotlight of online discourse, if not national news coverage.
We have covered the topic before on RANGE, speaking a few months ago with Jenny Slagle — a Yakama Nation member who also serves on the Spokane Public School Board — about her two sisters, both of whom went missing, and who were later found dead. Jenny’s family story is just one of thousands of similar stories of people who are failed by a system that is theoretically designed to protect everyone equally, but which in reality almost never does.
If you haven’t heard the episode, it’s worth listening to better understand why a disproportionately high number of Indigenous people — particularly women (including trans women), girls, and two-spirit individuals — go missing, and receive inadequate attention from media and law enforcement.
Using data from just one year, 2016, the Urban Indian Health Institute published a report shedding light on a cascading series of institutional failures to care about Native life, leading not just to people going missing and never being found, but to, in the words of the report, institutional practices:
“that allow [Native people] to disappear not once, but three times — in life, in the media, and in the data.”
The ongoing crisis is often abbreviated as MMIW, MMIWG and MMIWG2S. It reached a state and national audience this week for a couple of reasons.
On a state level, the Na’ah Illahee Fund — a Seattle-based nonprofit that serves the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia) — announced it’s offering direct grants of $1,000 to Native families actively searching for missing loved ones. Grants from the “Red Blanket” fund are meant to cover costs associated with searches (gas, flyers, metal detector or drone rental, private detectives) and awareness-raising events (vigils, rallies) as well as mortality-related care (funeral and ceremony costs).
Nationally, though, the reason was more troubling, demonstrating a deep societal neglect. While national media was breathlessly covering every lead and incremental development in a missing persons case, MMIW advocates shaped an online discourse around the stark contrast between how that case — the search for Gabby Petito, a blonde, 22-year-old travel blogger who went missing on Sept. 11th (and was later found dead in Western Wyoming) after embarking on a month-long road trip with her fiancé, the prime suspect — was covered in the media compared to hundreds of hardly-publicized Native missing persons cases across the nation.
On September 3rd, Bellingham resident and Lummi Nation member Reatha May Finkbonner, age 30, went missing while vacationing in Las Vegas with her friends and fiancé. That case shares similarities with the Gabby Petito story, and both happened concurrently. So why hasn’t the search for Finkbonner received a fraction of the attention from major media outlets?
The case of Reatha illustrates the inverse reality of what late journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to describe our tendency to place almost all of our focus on a handful of missing persons cases — almost always white, usually blonde, cisgendered women.
The issue isn’t that missing white women should be ignored. It’s that as a whole, media doesn’t devote serious coverage or awareness-raising when people of color go missing.
While some people (read: white commenters on the Internet) insist the search for Petito was speedy and thorough because of her quasi-famous “influencer” status, Ifill already documented many instances of non-famous missing white girls and women such as Polly Klass, JonBenét Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, and Natalee Holloway, whose disappearances received heightened media devotion. The unjust practice is by no means new.
On Sept. 23rd, the nonprofit Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA (MMIWUSA) released an official statement on Petito’s case:
“Gabby has been covered on every news outlet in the US and even internationally, but our women and children don’t get that same kind of support. …. We know that media attention leads to community action, and community action plays a huge role in getting people home safely. How can the community help if they don’t know a person is missing?”
The more people who search, the better the chances of cracking a missing person case. Ultimately, it wasn’t police who spotted Petito’s abandoned white van in the Bridger-Teton National Forest of Wyoming; it was YouTube bloggers. A tweet by the FBI prompted the family to review vacation video footage that proved the white van was present on a certain date (though the FBI won’t confirm if the bloggers’ van tip led them to locate Petito’s body).
In Wyoming — the very state where Petito’s body was discovered — 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020. 57% were female. According to the University of Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People: Statewide Report Wyoming, these cases were the least covered by media. While the report focuses on state-specific data, similar problems are present in national media coverage (or lack thereof) too.
Racism, in the form of disparate media coverage, persists even if a missing Indigenous person is found murdered. According to the report,
“The newspaper articles for Indigenous homicide victims were more likely to contain violent language, portray the victim in a negative light, and provide less information as compared to articles about White homicide victims.”
Sadly, Ifill’s “missing white woman syndrome” media diagnosis is still relevant. But it seems more and more media consumers — and some producers — are engaging in critical reflection this go-round. On Thursday, The Washington Post published a piece titled “Even within the media, some question the amount of Gabby Petito coverage.” Lynnette Grey Bull, a Wyoming Native missing persons advocate who appeared on the Joy Reid show Monday, said about recent coverage critique: “I’m hoping and praying that we’re in a moment where we are able to make a shift.”
There’s some happy news to end this story. Just this morning, Reatha Finkbonner was found alive near Las Vegas, a rare positive outcome in an ongoing crisis. — Elissa & Luke
Further Reading & Resources: Check out this MMIW Resource Guide published last year by The Lakota People’s Law Project.
Click here for a current list of missing indigenous people in Washington State and who to contact if you have any information at all. There is no equivalent list for Idaho.
And again, if you have a moment, check out our episode with Jenny Slagle
FROM THE LABOR DESK
There’s been a lot of local, regional and national labor news piling up the last couple of weeks that we need to catch up with, but we wanted to start with emerging news of labor unrest among the film and entertainment workers union, IATSE.
Shooting schedules for film and TV have always been grueling. It’s one of the reasons the sector has such a history of unionism. Whether you’re in the bowels of a coal mine or hoisting heavy equipment around a soundstage in Burbank, working 12-, 16-, sometimes 20-hour days take a serious emotional and physical toll. And now, with the rise of streaming services and so-called “new media,” conditions have deteriorated further.
Workers have been agitating for some pretty basic stuff contractually — we’re literally talking about time to sleep between shifts here — and apparently there’s a big enough gap between they and management that they’re considering a strike. In their own words:
Call us biased, but “sleep” and “enough money to survive” seem like pretty reasonable demands.
An Instagram account called ia_stories has been documenting conditions anonymously. This obviously isn’t rigorous journalism, but the individual stories are often heart-wrenching, and the stories as a whole paint a pretty damning picture of the industry and how, specifically in the case of “new media” — technology companies are trying to “disrupt” the sector in the same way Uber and DoorDash have: by making labor as precarious as possible. With delivery services, they keep drivers contractors, not employees, and only pay for the hours they’re actively shuttling someone or delivering food. In the case of streaming platforms, it’s trying to create multiple classes of production so they can pay workers less, even when the overall budgets approach the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.
This isn’t just important for your favorite Netflix show. Tech and platform companies are buying up traditional studios and intellectual property rights at a breathtaking rate, which means, in all likelihood, the disruption is only going to spread into legacy media as well.
It’s not immediately obvious what this has to do with Spokane, but in the last week dozens of people in our local social media feeds have been sharing these stories out — as well as horror stories of their own from within the industry. Some of these people work in Spokane. Some live here but work in Seattle, or LA. Many go wherever they can find work, which often means Georgia, New Mexico and sometimes abroad.
We are living in the age of global capital and there are few industries as global as entertainment. The worker groundswell really showcases how interconnected we all are and how, for every a-list actor or rockstar showrunner, there are thousands of workers making it happen, and regardless of where an individual project films, it draws workers who live all over the country.
ALSO THIS WEEK: Pharmacy Techs working for Kaiser in Spokane are holding out for a wage scale commensurate with colleagues in the rest of Washington. This is a standard practice, according to UFCW 21. Pharmacy techs in other unions like OPEIU and SEIU have a single wage scale throughout Washington and workers at Kaiser just want the same accommodation as their peers..
In the Seattle area, the Carpenters’ union halted work on Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook expansions in Seattle area over displeasure with their new contract. The old contract expired last Wednesday and by Thursday morning. Work had stopped. The Association of General Contractors — who represent the big construction companies on the other side of the table — blamed non-union shops and other market pressures for keeping wages down, but the workers weren’t having it.
The Seattle Times quoted a worker named John McCallum saying, “Seattle has been booming since 2010. Every time the contract comes up, the same crap is spewed: ‘We did the best we could. We’ll get you better next time.’ … It’s coming to a head and we need to stand up for ourselves.
Speaking of food delivery workers! Some of the most harrowing images to come out of deadly storm Ida, which flooded much of New York City, grinding it to a halt, were of delivery workers struggling, for hours, to deliver people their takeout …
Again this was during a deadly storm.
For many (including us), it was some of the most egregious evidence of worker exploitation and the increasing stratification of our society into the haves and the people who are often forced, by economic circumstance, to serve them.
It was, in reality, just another day on the job. Using data from a survey by Cornell University’s Worker Institute, the Times pulled a few key findings:
- 42 percent of workers had experienced being underpaid or not paid at all.
- Nearly half said they had crashed while delivering food and 75 percent of those said they used their own money to pay for their medical care.
- 54 percent reported being robbed and 30 percent said they were assaulted during the robbery.
Yesterday, New York City passed the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive reforms on pay and working conditions for food delivery workers. Time will tell the actual impact, and whether NYC’s leadership will trickle down to cities that have a less competitive delivery market and fewer viral twitter accounts.
Speaking of less competitive markets with fewer viral (at least social media viral) moments, unionized City workers got a big lift in Spokane a couple weeks ago when a judge overturned the open bargaining law that voters approved in 2019. The law only covered city workers. Proponents said it was about transparency, and that’s how the ballot item read as well. Workers, though, said it would hamper their ability to hammer out tough deals the way unions and non-governmental businesses do. Labor advocates also said it was illegal under state law and unconstitutional as well. The judge agreed, saying, the charter amendment conflicts with state law “clearly on its face and by application under the facts before the Court.”
SAYS IT ALL
“Indigenous resistance has been key in blocking at least eight major projects … [which] would have been responsible for nearly 800 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, or about 12 percent of the total emissions of the U.S. and Canada in 2019.”
— Nick Cunningham, “Indigenous Resistance Instrumental in Stopping High-Profile Fossil Fuel Projects, Says Report,” DeSmog.com
Imagine being a nuclear worker when your biggest fear occurs: You’re exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive material. Then imagine the federal benefit system designed to assist you refuses to come to your aid. That’s what’s happening to over 900 sick nuclear workers across the country, including workers at the Hanford site. They’re facing perilous delays from the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
In May, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) paused new medical-and-benefit applications to retool its website and fix cyberattack vulnerabilities. Then on September 3, NIOSH revealed the “pause” could last until June 2022 — a 13-month delay. Workers with illnesses ranging from cancer to diabetes to incessant ear-ringing are now stuck in “processing purgatory.” While certain exceptions are in place for terminal or late-stage cancer patients, the situation is dire.
But wait, it gets worse!
Just after Labor Day, Biden’s Department of Justice filed an appeal against a 2018 Washington state law (HB 1723) that allowed Hanford workers to more easily obtain benefits and compensations if they have illnesses related to their jobs. The Biden administration’s legal action sends a clear message to Hanford workers: Help isn’t coming from the Federal Government.
Picking up the slack at the state level, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently appeared in Pasco with over a dozen Hanford workers from Local Union 598. Addressing the crowd, Ferguson said:
“It’s time to bring this fight to an end, and a president, Joe Biden, a president who says he’s on the side of workers, needs to do the right thing and stand up for workers here at Hanford and drop this appeal.”