This article is offered as a part of our Indigeneity series: news and analysis from Native journalists and columnists.
Sometimes when a problem is so vast and encompasses so much bureaucracy and emotion it can become hard to see the victories, even the small ones. The inaugural Missing in New Mexico Day and event in Albuquerque this past weekend was one of those moments you could actually see forward movement happen. The day brought together numerous agencies state, municipal, tribal and federal in one room to answer the questions of families working through MMIP (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons) cases.
The day is the result of two major actions, the work of the state’s MMIW Task Force and the signature of Senate Bill 13 into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. That bill established this annual event to bring awareness to MMIP issues and provide community resources that can often be out of reach.
Families were able to speak with investigators, forensic experts and community partners about their loved ones’ cases. This day might have been the first time ever that some families were able to access law enforcement in person. Albuquerque Police Detectives and crimes scene unit investigators were on hand to take questions. US Attorney Alexander Uballez and the F.B.I. also came with staff ready to take the information. It seemed like people were able to get answers or at the very least say their peace and speak to an actual person. Investigators looked at each other in amazement as families discussed details that law enforcement may have missed or in some cases never followed up on. When you have a case that entails multiple agencies, details are often missed. This moment represented a dynamic shift in the conversation.
Lujan Grisham addressed the standing-room-only crowd.
“This is a difficult day. And in fact, for the families represented here, every day is a difficult day. And this very sad, frankly horrendous journey takes an incredible both physical and emotional toll on every single family. One, it’s a recognition that we have a significant problem in this state. It is a travesty and it must be fixed that this is the status quo. Two, bringing peace and justice also means that we can do something to prevent these tragedies in every single community across the state. But recognizing tribal communities, often remote without sufficient police or public safety coverage with inconsistent jurisdictions and issues, only exacerbates a dark problem that we have to recognize and deal with head-on.”
The gov went on to acknowledge all of these stakeholders and call on them to work toward making the jurisdictional system more efficient in the search for missing people and bringing justice to those who have lost their lives.
The effectiveness of the day was also apparent to Attorney General Hector Balderas, who brought his team to sit with families and take information on cold cases and active ones.
“You’ve seen the culmination of generations of injustice, generations of systemic gaps. Finally, New Mexico is building a model of justice where we want to build cases, we want to make up for the lost time in cold cases. And not only do we pass historic legislation, but we’re putting real resources into trying to secure not only successful prosecutions but to find services to support families, Native American families. So I’m hopeful that we’re building a national model where many other states who are dealing with the murder to missing indigenous crisis as well follow our lead. But it was very humbling today to see so many families and to put institutions of power in front of these families to know that their loved ones are at least being honored and respected,” said Balderas.
New Mexico Indian Affairs Sec. Lynn Trujillo was encouraged by the turnout and gave credit to the task force for coming up with this idea to bring the law and programs to the people directly.
One of the other big ideas taking flight that day was the MMIP information graphic produced by the State’s MMIWR Task Force. The first of its kind, this simple flyer is a great first step in helping community members navigate what to do if their loved ones have gone missing. The flyer will be made available online and in print to all tribal communities and others who may request them as well.
Secretary Trujillo explained this new tool, “So the infographic that is being unveiled here today and it’s just a helpful tool that came from our task force members. Just really simple what to do. Even just the reminder about practicing resilience and engaging in community care that’s really important. And staying calm. And I mean, just really kind of simple steps to kind of walkthrough. And it’s in one place, it’s easy and I think we have an incredible tool that we can get out there. And maybe I’m hopeful that it’ll ignite more ideas about other tools that the task force can work on with the community and that the state can support,” Trujillo said.
Shereena Baker from Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute talked with The Paper. about working on this issue in the community, ” there’s honestly so much that can be said and it’s almost like you don’t know until you are how you’re actually doing the work, and then you start to understand and understand even more. This is happening and we understand that it’s happening and I just feel like now there are resources out there that we can kind of look to look towards that if, like, say if someone goes missing a lot of things that were, that was a need was like, where do I start? Yes. Who do I go to? How do I write up this? How do I do this?”
It would be great to see events like this become the norm and throughout different parts of the state. Safe places like Catalysts of Change can begin to heal and share a dialogue about this horrible subject. And events like the State’s Missing Peoples day, give families searching for answers an opportunity to ask the hard questions of those that are supposed to be helping them. Often it can be intimidating for the average person to talk to the police, let alone the FBI or State Attorney General. Furthermore, working through their systems of communications firewalls can often feel like walking a maze. Many times families may not ever meet the detectives or the OMI investigator, but today they were there. And for at least one day they were forced to listen. Families were able to get direct contact information and put cold cases right in front of those that have the ability to re-open them. The humanizing of law enforcement – and humanizing of those behind missing and murdered cases, caused an enormous change. Police and agencies learned who these families are, who their loved ones are and what their issues are. The hard work for these agencies has just begun. The families will wait again to see if this makes a difference in their loved one’s cases.
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).