Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

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In the past month, there has been some big news in MMIWR (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives) circles, at least here in New Mexico. Let’s make note of that line: here in New Mexico. We will come back to that later.

The FBI made big news with a sudden press conference in regards to their new list of Native missing people in N.M. and Ariz. that they released at the end of July. This list takes missing persons’ records and data from cases throughout N.M. and brings them together. Currently, the list stands at around 186 individuals give or take. The numbers change as new cases are reported and older cases are closed. It really is the first of its kind in the nation and a testament to the work of local tribes and advocates to press Federal and State law enforcement to take MMIWR seriously. 

Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo spoke at the press event. “I think this is a critical step moving forward. The response plan identified those jurisdictional barriers and the lack of coordination. This is an example of just state and federal partners coming together to break down some of those barriers. I think that the fact that the FBI was devoting resources to have this list that is verified is going to help us better understand the scope of the crisis. We’ve seen through our own work the numbers of missing people vary in our state, and maybe this will help us really start to hone into the number of people that are missing and really bring some answers to our families.”

A good start considering N.M. and Albuquerque have some of the largest numbers of MMIWR cases, but this type of collaboration has yet to occur in other states. Hopefully, this will become an example of collaborative first steps in addressing MMIWR that other communities can follow.

One item that is always asked about and always made very clear by the FBI is that the FBI is not in the business of searching for missing people, or only if that missing person’s case turns criminal. The average person doesn’t have a lot of experience in working through the court systems and also the process for reporting a missing person. If these hurdles were not bad enough, there may be jurisdictional or legal processes that cause confusion, too.

One example of this was brought to the attention of the state and the feds during the FBI’s July 25 press conference. The Farmington Police Department was not allowed to have DNA evidence tested by the State of New Mexico. Detective Chavez, who leads the missing persons and cold cases office in their department, followed up during the Indian Affairs web meeting on July 27.

“Through some of my cold cases, I’ve attempted to reach the New Mexico lab to have evidence be tested. And unfortunately, they will not take my evidence because missing is not considered a crime. And so we are running into the issue of how we can get these items tested that can possibly give us leads and getting DNA profiles for our victims,” Det. Chavez said.

The detective was again referred to the Attorney General’s office. The Albuquerque Police Dept. (APD) representative on the call mentioned that some agencies classify these cases as homicides to get around this hurdle. But that in itself can create issues, especially in tribal communities, where a designation of murder can have cultural implications.

Darlene Gomez, Esq. works extensively with MMIWR cases and families as well as being an advocate for change in regards to MMIWR approaches from law enforcement and policymakers. She spoke on exactly this situation during our conversation.

“It’s just incredibly complex and families need to be just walked through that on a very basic level because it’s so complex. And so when we’re talking about jurisdiction, so like for instance myself, I’m going back home to Lumberton. So I’m going through Sandia Pueblo, Santa Ana Pueblo, Zia Pueblo, Jicarilla Reservation, Jemez and Navajo. So I just crossed six jurisdictions with three Sheriff’s departments, the State Police and FBI. That’s 11 separate jurisdictions. So, you know, if I was abducted from Albuquerque plus Albuquerque, that’s 12. I would have crossed all those jurisdictions.” 

Ms. Gomez’s ever-expanding list of pro bono MMIWR cases and families includes that of Jamie Yazzie. Jamie went missing during the summer of 2019 and her remains were discovered nearly two years later. The case has been ongoing and received attention from Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. 

The family had previously asked why the boyfriend Tre C. James was not questioned and the residence searched immediately. Apparently, that interview and search did happen at some point and blood evidence, as well as gun shell casings, were found. Witnesses placed her at the residence and fighting with Tre the night before she went missing. Her body was found on Hopi land. Tre was indicted on eight counts including the murder of Jamie Yazzie. He was also charged in two other separate cases after Jamie had gone missing: domestic violence cases including “suffocation, strangling, kidnapping, and assault with a dangerous weapon,” as stated in the Department of Justice’s press release out of the Arizona District Attorney’s office.

Their acknowledgment section of the press release names the jurisdictional entities at play. “Ms. Yazzie was listed as a missing person by both federal and tribal law enforcement, and the circumstances of her disappearance were investigated jointly by the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety Criminal Investigation Services, Navajo Nation Police Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajo County Sherriff’s Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Darlene Gomez makes note of how jurisdiction can be an issue just on the Navajo Nation. “Navajo Nation has seven districts. So depending on what district you’re in will determine who you call to make a missing person’s report, but because they’re so understaffed that your missing person’s report could not be a priority, so you know, in the police department, they have priority 1, 2, 3, 4 with a priority, one being, you know, active shooters and certain things like that. So you may not even get an officer to come to your home for days and days and days. So because so many of the substations are not open to the public, it may be also very difficult to go in and file a report in person.” 

The process is the next hurdle when it comes to cases like Jamie’s, even this indictment is not fully justice. But it gets news priority because this is a case that is about to be closed and one that agencies can mark as a win when they are not even through trial yet. It can be easily mistaken that this news means conviction. We are not there yet. So how does one get help working through this maze? 

Locally, the Bernalillo Metro Court has collaborated with other agencies and programs to help families and individuals find resources that may include things like legal assistance. Their approach hits a wide array of resources, with an ultimate goal of keeping people out of the judicial system. Tiffany Venatsky, the probation lead worker for Bernalillo County, and Statewide Behavioral Health Manager Scott Patterson with the Administrative Office of the Courts, talked to me about The DETOUR program. DETOUR stands for Diversion Engagement Treatment Options for Underserved Relatives. Individuals can be referred to the program in reference to a myriad of situations: legal, housing, substance abuse and mental health care. Tribal programs can make referrals and residents of Bernalillo County can enroll themselves.

“We work across systems to make sure that folks have a connection to the services they need with the goal of either preventing further system involvement or assisting to extricate people from the justice system in a way that’s meaningful,” Venatsky said.

So what does that really mean? Scott Patterson placed it in the context of the court systems. “With initiatives like DETOUR and other initiatives that are happening throughout New Mexico and throughout the country, we’re starting to take ownership of our role in the process, of our role and our ability to help folks recognize their own capacity to heal.” 

That’s one approach and we will see how well this works. The big factor in the use of any program like this is making the public aware it exists. This project is grant funded through the Bureau of Justice Assistance. For more info on this upcoming initiative, call Vanetsky with the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court at 505.841.8151.

Education and resources are clearly needed to help guide families and even small police agencies when navigating the judicial world when it comes to MMIWR. Systems have to be flexible as in the case of DETOUR because of the array of situations they seek to assist. But these systems also need the authority and solid resources that agencies like the FBI provide. The FBI isn’t there to hold the hands of families through the criminal process and absolutely not equipped to help with missing person cases in general. 

Any sort of macro change within an issue like MMIWR requires micro engagement. Attorney Gomez mentioned having had positive working relationships with the feds while working on behalf of tribes, but that the doors become a bit more closed when you work as an advocate. She explained how these agencies need to think about working in tribal communities.

“I really think it’s important that these agents have relationships and not just superficial. Really care about those communities they work in and get to know about. What’s the tradition? Go to the basketball games, even have someone make stew and fry bread and just sit around and let people ask you questions. Because I feel like it’s them, FBI agents, like those, are them. It’s not us,” Gomez said.

It is that comfort level that is important for trust in our communities, especially when it comes to law enforcement. Years of bad policing, understaffed offices and jurisdictional boundaries have created some large walls. Advocates and programs like DETOUR may not totally break down these walls but can help climb over them.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).”