EWU Professor Margo Hill Is a Voice for the Missing and Murdered

April 28, 2023

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When Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed a bill into law that creates a task force and a cold case unit to investigate missing and murdered Indigenous people, it sent a message of hope to those who have long advocated for change.

The task force, created by HB 1177, will be housed in Washington state’s Office of the Attorney General. It will fill a gap created by a web of tangled jurisdictional systems that, experts say, too often fail Indigenous people.

The formation of the task force and cold case unit was especially welcome news to EWU’s Margo Hill, an urban planning professor and expert in federal Indian law. Hill has spent years advocating for solutions to crimes targeting Native persons, in particular those involving missing and murdered Indigenous women [MMIW].

“For too long violence against indigenous women has been ignored and MMIW cases have not be investigated by law enforcement or covered by the media,” says Hill.

Hill’s research and advocacy, conducted in partnership with EWU faculty members, graduate students and tribal leaders, has helped to shine a spotlight on the MMIW crisis. It has also helped in the development of a standardized set of best practices aimed at preventing, investigating and prosecuting violent crimes against Native women. In its purest sense, her work is about keeping communities safe.

“I’m an attorney who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, so I’m an Indigenous woman. I also have daughters, so this means the whole world to me,” says Hill, who well understands the risks that Indigenous women face.

On April 28, Hill is serving as a panel expert for EWU’s latest Eastern Edge event, which is being held in Yakima, where a number of members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation are currently missing.

Closer to home, Hill is helping to organize a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women/Persons event on the Eastern campus, with activities scheduled from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Friday, May 5, on the Arévalo Mall.

The Awareness Day event is a collaboration of the Native American Student Association; American Indian Studies; the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; the EWU Art Program and the Lucy Covington Initiative that will feature speakers representing several area tribes. It will also include performers, information resources and an interactive art workshop. (To learn more, visit the university’s MMIW website.)

Hill began her research and advocacy work, five years ago, at a time when missing Indigenous women still weren’t considered a priority, and brutal crimes committed on reservations were routinely declined for prosecution, she says.

“The stats show that on some reservations Indigenous women go missing 10 times more frequently than the average women,” Hill explains while pointing to a graphic listing the names of 128 indigenous people in Washington state who have disappeared — among them 68 women. (Washington State Patrol Missing Native American Persons List)

“There is such a lack of understanding of federal Indian law and the intersectionality of transportation and human trafficking,” says Hill. “The university has allowed me the freedom and flexibility to do the research that provides solutions for our tribal communities.”

Hill recently co-produced a public service announcement, shown below, that illustrates how vulnerable some Indigenous women are to becoming victims of crime. 

Hill, who has a decade of experience serving as an attorney and judge for the Spokane Tribe of Indians, teaches urban planning at EWU, including a class on planning law and tribal governance.

“My urban planning students understand tribal sovereignty, they understand federal Indian law. It’s kind of amazing,” she says.

She has written and coauthored numerous articles, including a recent story on using mobility data to identify areas frequented by traffickers of Indigenous women, for TR News titled, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: How Can Transportation Stop Traffickers?

In her teaching at Eastern, Hill helps her students compile maps of MMIW and the mobility patterns of Indigenous women. The maps, such as those created by Zachary Becker ’17, ’19, now a city planning official in Airway Heights, provide visual snapshots that bring data into focus. Hill often uses the maps while giving presentations at state and national conferences and for training workshops.

“These maps help tell the story of what happens to indigenous people and how prosecution of perpetrators is a challenge for law enforcement,” she says.

Becker served as a research assistant for Hill in 2017-2019 while he earned a master’s degree in urban planning. He utilized mapping skills gleaned as an undergraduate geography student to create maps that support the MMIW,  and did other work to educate and improve the lives of Indigenous people.

“Margo is fantastic, not only as a teacher but a spokesperson – not just for her own tribe, but for all tribes in Washington,” Becker says. “She has been for doing this for decades now. I appreciate the time I got to spend with her.”

Hill’s role at Eastern allows her to tell stories and present data in a particularly impactful way. “Because we have a tribal planning program and we teach tribal governance and we have urban planning, we can tell the story to a senator’s office, we can help other universities.”

Most recently, Hill’s educational work has come to include training law enforcement on federal Indian law and jurisdictional legal issues, as well as training Washington state Department of Transportation employees to look for red flags that can point to human trafficking in rest areas and on public lands.

Indigenous women, Hill’s research has determined, are preyed upon more frequently due in large part to the ongoing lack of prevention and enforcement efforts in federal, state, county and tribal jurisdictions. These factors lead to delays and inactivity when someone goes missing, and a failure to bring perpetrators to justice when missing persons are found to have been victims of crimes. Nor does the plight of missing Indigenous women receive an equal amount of news coverage.

In part to remedy these deficiencies, Hill was recently at the heart of a grassroots effort to restore funding for the Washington State Patrol to hire an Eastern Washington tribal liaison to investigate major crimes and disappearances on reservations.

The effort ultimately led to a resolution that was approved by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a 57-tribe organization, and sent to Gov. Inslee. Within days, the state patrol moved forward with hiring a vetted candidate for the position.

“We have Indigenous people in Olympia at the state level – so you can make a difference,” Hill says. “Now we have a tribal liaison not only in western Washington but eastern Washington to help advocate for families of MMIW and track these cases.”

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