The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman Task Force was created nearly a year ago after decades of silence and apathy from the law enforcement community. When you hear numbers like: “84 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime”, or “Native Women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average,” it should make you stop in your tracks. Numbers like these are unforgivable and begs the question, “What is happening here?”
In their first report to the state, the newly formed Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force laid out its initial findings to the public. Indian Affairs Department Secretary Lynn Trujillo hosted the event that saw nearly 60 online participants. Stephanie Salazar, IAD legal council and task force appointee, presented the findings and data for their first year. The findings include statistics such as, “From 2014-2019 Gallup Police indicated 15 total homicide cases, 13 of which were Native American.” It was also revealed that Native American Women in N.M. have the highest rate of homicide amongst all racial demographics.
Out of the 23 agencies requested to participate, 19 provided data. But the data was very limited in scope. Many times agencies did not break numbers down into categories like ethnicity, and in some cases did not report at all, citing, “Data requested was overly burdensome or broad to report.”
Furthermore, data isn’t being collected consistently across jurisdictions and major funding is needed in support of this data collection. Additional manpower is key; funding would go toward training new data collectors and re-evaluating data collection techniques.
The absolute largest finding from the task force was that the precise number of MMIW in N.M. is hard to nail down. What is striking is that when people ask for an accurate number of murdered or missing Indigenous women, it is not possible to give, because there is such a lack of data in our state and a shortage of resources. The numbers are nearly always higher than what is reported, because so many have just never been reported or accounted for.
Becky Johnson became involved in the task force due to a family situation—taking up the cause of her cousin Tiffany Reid’s disappearance after Tiffany’s mother passed away without finding an answer. It was May 17, 2004 when Tiffany, 16, headed to school in Red Valley, Arizona, and was never seen again. At the time, she was reported missing by the Navajo Nation Police—but was subsequently not entered into the national missing person database, NCIC (The National Crime Information Center). NCIC is a multi-jurisdictional database of crime information that can be accessed at an instant by most law enforcement agencies. But oddly enough, it is not accessible by tribal communities like the Navajo Nation.
Christine Means is the project assistant for the MMIW Task Force and spoke about her own family tragedy. Her sister Dione Thomas was found beaten in a hotel along Gallup’s Route 66 downtown area nearly five years ago. Her initial assault case was made into a homicide when she died an hour later. No investigation was ever initiated; there is still no current case status—almost like the case was just pushed aside and forgotten. “A task force like this has helped so many families begin to find like-minded individuals that can help in the navigation of all these systems.” said Means. She went on to mention the task force’s major need: “The need for resources, training and support services with murder investigations. Data from the U.S. Attorney’s Office states that the largest reason for dismissing a case is lack of sufficient evidence. Seventy-one percent of cases in homicides at the tribal federal level had been dismissed.” This is where the local law enforcement needs to be retrained in evidence and data collection.
First Lady of the Navajo Nation Phefelia Nez was also in attendance and spoke to the needs and recommendations of the state. It was good to see her lending her voice to this issue. She called for legislation to be formed to help empower tribal justice systems, including jurisdictional changes and increasing monies for advocacy efforts. She also called for the establishment of liaison positions for Native communities inside law enforcement agencies.
New Mexico State Police Capt. Troy Velasquez, who is a tribal liaison for the N.M. Department of Safety and looks after Cibola and McKinley Counties, is also a member of the task force. Cross commissions and “memorandums of understanding” were a major point of his discussion. According to Capt. Velasquez, an MOU “acts as a force multiplier and allows for tribal, state and county officers to work a situation together on and off the reservations to investigate major crimes and continue to share resources.” All agencies involved need to figure out a way to work better together and to share information. “New Mexico is very complex in its jurisdictional scheme,” said Capt. Velasquez. “It does require tribal, federal, state and county—all these agencies—to work together to ensure that the people that cause these violent crimes against Native women are identified and prevented from causing further harm and not allowing some places to act as safe havens for these crimes; tribal sovereignty does not change our mission.”
This happens through a federal cross-commission system that allows for collaborations between pueblo law agencies and federal officers. One of the biggest issues the captain brought up was the hopeful funding and creation of a “cold case” office at the New Mexico State Police level that will focus on specifically MMIW cold cases.
During the next legislative session, the report will get shared with the governor and original bill sponsors. The task force hopes to make some specific recommendations during this legislative session. And as a local person, you can help tremendously by becoming involved where you can—calling for support with community-level resources like shelters, safe homes, etc. is also needed. The biggest thing that we can do as community members is to help people learn about this issue and keep cold cases in the news.
When you really begin to look at the MMIW situation from a larger context, you realize there is so much work to do—that it takes a task force this big to begin to tackle all the issues involved. It covers ground from the federal level to the state, county and even municipal levels. Lots of memorandums of understanding need to be signed and plenty of new positions need to be created. If you have a hard time understanding why this is important, imagine never seeing your mother, sister, daughter, friend or family ever again and having no way to bring justice to your situation. It is something I would never wish on another person, but it is something too many families in N.M. deal with every day in darkness. It’s time we bring this to light.