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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This piece is offered as a part of our Indigenaity series: news and analysis from Native journalists and columnists.

A few things to note in the MMIWR news and information space this month: Seraphine Warren will soon finish her journey across the country to bring awareness to MMIWR to the nation’s capital. Her trek originated as a tribute to her Aunt Ella Mae Begay. By the time you read this article, she will have entered our nation’s capital. As of Friday, Oct. 8 she was 75 miles outside of Washington, DC. She hopes to have a meeting with Deb Haaland and anyone else willing to talk with her.

The Navajo Nation had apparently reached out to Seraphine in regards to her making it to DC, but as per Seraphine’s own post on social media, she asks: “Where were they when I started this journey? They have the money to hop on a plane and meet me, that could be money used to buy an ATV or a drone that we have asked for. Use some of that money you use to fly around and go to meetings, help us, get us a search team, put our missing on billboards, and reach out to families that need help making ends meet. That’s what’s important.”

She asks: Why she is so important to them now? They never called or messaged her along the way and no one from that office offered help. She has used her own resources, with help from family and the generous donations of many online supporters, to get herself and her brother 1,000 miles from home.

Nez This week the office of the Navajo Nation President released a statement in which they mentioned meeting with the FBI in regard to information access and accountability to families in their case systems. The press release also stated that President Nez had requested the FBI meet with Seraphine in Washington and update her on her aunt Ella Mae Begay’s case. The president again promised more reward money for information in MMIW cases.

So does it take having to walk to Washington to get your voice heard? I can certainly seem that way. Or you could try and intercept one of Washington’s most powerful people outside a local event.

Secy. of the Interior Deb Haaland was home for Laguna Feast day Sept 19th and a series of official engagements around the state. One of her many appearances came at UNM law school. Inside future lawyers and guests came to hear the Secretary talk about all things DOI. She talked about her experiences growing up, her environmental work and more –   while outside the families of MMIWR relatives stood in the rain waiting for even just a moment of acknowledgment from the Secretary. That did not happen.

Recording was restricted at the event, with an army of State Police paying close attention. The vibe was odd, why so many police? These are families with children and elders, not a group to be fearful of. The security entourage at her prior events was not as pronounced. To be fair, the Secretary does have a tight schedule, but these are families, even some from her own community, that came in the hope to share their stories with her. She can glad hand and take pictures with so many other people in the course of her travels, so why not these folks?

A long-time advocate and attorney Darlene Gomez was in attendance with families of MMIWR individuals. These families had purchased two tables for a talk at the American Indian Center with the Secretary the next day. Their reservation had been pulled due to “overbooking.” 

Those families that were to be in attendance figured the next best option was to go to the Secretary herself. As Gomez puts it: “We are not here to make her look bad. We are proud of our sister, but these families just want to be heard. Some of these families feel like the Creator put her in that position to help them, a Native person that understands our situation. And so the families are really heartbroken today because they thought they were gonna have the ability to speak with her, and that she would at least come out and introduce herself and at least listen to their stories. One or two of the families here are on the BIA Missing and Murdered unit website.” 

Vangie Randall-Shorty holds photos of her son, Zachariah. Photo by Jonathan Sims.

The lecture ended with a question and answer session in which some mothers of missing and murdered relatives were able to voice their concerns directly to Secy. Haaland. Vangie Randall-Shorty’s son Zacharia was found murdered in a field near the small community of Nenahnezad in San Juan County. Ms. Randall-Shorty’s voice trembled as she spoke. “You didn’t mention anything about the missing and murdered unit that you started, you know, that saddens me because that is why you’re here. And, you know, I’ve also met with the missing murdered unit. They’ve come in, they came out to my house and they gave me their time. They spoke with me and listened to Zach’s story. They went out to the location where he was found. They looked through pictures and I was able to tell them about his life.” 

She went on to mention that it had been two years since the case was opened. “My problem is the jurisdiction unit. What can you do for us? There are many families here. There are families outside. And I’m hoping that you come out to address them. We want answers. We want this jurisdiction lifted so that the BIA unit can come in and help the FBI.”

Nenahnezad lies just between Shiprock and Farmington, a small close-knit farming community right along the San Juan river, but the border town’s proximity brings along with it various issues in regards to jurisdiction. Even $5,000 in reward money posted by the FBI for information has turned up nothing.

Secretary Haaland replied to Randall-Shorty. “Thank you for coming here. I’m so sorry for your loss. And again, it would help us if we could get your contact information or if you can get in contact with us. Yeah, it’s hard for me to know about the case in particular. However, all the cases are important to us. And if you would like to have a card from one of my staff, you could follow up with us.” Ms. Shorty responded that she has done that already: “Okay. So that’s all you have for us? Is that?”

Lela Mailman also got up to speak. Her daughter Melanie Marie James went missing from the Farmington area in 2014. Her family has never given up hope she is alive. Mailman drove nearly three hours from Arizona to have her voice heard. “Nobody seemed to have taken this seriously; this is my child. And you talked about family, talked about surroundings. How those made you. We shouldn’t have to go by statistics. This is reality. When I started out in 2014, we had a small table. Now we got two tables put together and it’s not getting any better. The reservation needs more training, more, better facilities instead of shipping evidence to Albuquerque or Phoenix. Things get lost or mishandled and we can’t get a clean case.”

The Secretary again offered her condolences and sympathy, with Mailman responding, “Sorry. I understand. I don’t need sympathy. I need understanding and some kinda help and for everybody.”

Secretary Haaland made reference in her responses to these women to the groundbreaking work she has been able to accomplish during her time in Washington, the biggest of which is the passing into law of the Not Invisible Act. Signed in 2019, the Not Invisible Act seeks to create open lines of communication among intergovernmental agencies at the federal, state and tribal levels. 

Their aim is to increase inter-departmental coordination between the DOI and the Department of Justice to identify and combat violent crime within Indian lands. It establishes a commission of various stakeholders from a wide array of backgrounds and experience with MMIP, including survivors and families of victims. 

The “unit” Randall-Shorty referred to is known officially as the BIA/OJS Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU). This newly formed unit of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) investigates missing and murdered cases and provides technical assistance. They have a fairly useful website as far as government websites go. There you can find some easy-to-follow links to information and active MMIP cases. 

The online resource explains how the unit operates with the key phrase lying in the details. This unit can provide assistance to “tribal law enforcement who have P.L. 93-638 Contract where MMU assistance is requested by Tribal Law Enforcement leadership.” They also state in regards to P.L. 83-280 status tribes, that they are afforded the same and also require the law enforcement request and an “official” request.

This is a relatively new arm of the federal government and not all the kinks have been worked out. This is partially the issue as Randall-Shorty, Zacharia’s mother, sees it. What exactly is “a request by Tribal Law Enforcement Leadership?” Can tribal law enforcement make these requests on their own, without having to consult Tribal officials or councils? As some may know, getting an official request for virtually anything from some tribes can be a slow process. It isn’t that they do not want to help, they do. But there is a lot for some tribes to consider in terms of how far they want to allow access to outside law enforcement agencies. These tribes are sovereign nations and they have the final say in some respects. Giving up control can be an issue, but that is where this sort of law comes into play. Laws like the Not Invisible Act are supposed to alleviate those concerns through cultural awareness and using local stakeholders as resources in collaborative efforts.

This new unit in theory is also supposed to leverage the federal and tribal relationship to bring resources like the FBI forensics labs, behavioral analysis units, and the US Marshals into what Secy. Haaland referred to in her April 2021 announcement as an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to MMIP cases.

Secy. Haaland was gracious in her answers but didn’t engage the MMIW issue other than to respond those two statements from the audience. She exited out the side door, bypassing any engagement with the MMIW crowd. 

Hopefully, Serafine Warren will get that moment to talk with leadership in Washington on behalf of so many. When we first met her months ago as she walked through Albuquerque on that first leg of a seemingly impossible journey, we asked what she would say to Secy. Haaland or whoever she would meet in Washington. At that moment, she said she didn’t know yet. 

But as the miles added up, so did the nationwide response to what she has come to symbolize for so many. It is amazing and often sad to see the many families post and share their missing loved ones on her page. She has become their voice, too. It is not really what she intended to happen, it just did. 

Every once in a great while you will see a post or update on her feed that someone was actually located, or came home. Sometimes you read about justice finally being served. You read those posts and nod your head in gratitude. There is a small streak of light in that dark tunnel of questions, grief and pain. All these families want is to find that light in their situation. All they want is to be heard.

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).