Crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people brings federal commission to Albuquerque

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The Not Invisible Act Commission convenes in Albuquerque on June 28, 2023 for panel discussions about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Four skirts honoring victims of the crisis sit in front of the commission. Credit: Bella Davis, New Mexico In Depth

Savanna Greywind. Daisy Mae Heath. Ashlynne Mike.

The reading aloud of those names and five other missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls followed by a moment of silence opened a three-day hearing of the Not Invisible Act Commission in Albuquerque on Wednesday. 

The federal commission — made up of tribal leaders, law enforcement, service providers, impacted families, and survivors — has traveled the country this year, visiting Oklahoma, Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota and California to hear testimony from people most affected by the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

Testimony gathered in those places and in Albuquerque this week and Montana next month will inform a final report due in October. Its purpose is to help Congress, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland improve how federal, state and local government agencies respond to the crisis.

Confusion among governments over jurisdiction and a lack of dollars and dedicated personnel often impede investigations, many advocates and law enforcement officials say.

“The families are tired,” Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a commissioner and Navajo Nation Council delegate, said. “The families are tired of walking. They’re tired of protesting. They’re tired of everything. They just want justice.” 

More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime, a 2016 National Institute of Justice study found. And American Indian and Alaska Native women died by homicide at a rate of 4.3 per 100,000 compared to 1.5 for non-Hispanic white women from 2003 to 2014, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report (non-Hispanic Black women had the highest rate at 4.4). 

The Albuquerque event kicked off Wednesday with panel discussions, with personal testimony from survivors and families with missing and murdered loved ones planned for closed-door sessions on Thursday and Friday. 

Speaking to survivors and families, Elizabeth Hidalgo Reese, a member of Nambé Pueblo and senior policy advisor for Native Affairs at the White House, recognized the unfairness of asking them to talk about their pain and loss.

“It’s wrong that systems failed to protect you or your loved ones,” she said. “And it’s wrong that now you need to talk about it as a part of fixing it, even if it might feel a bit better for some people to get that out.” 

A handful of panelists, including state lawmakers, spoke about challenges in recruiting and retaining police officers, community trust in law enforcement and New Mexico’s needs in terms of resources, among other concerns. 

Commissioner Patricia Whitefoot held back tears as she described a lack of consistent communication from law enforcement when her sister, Daisy Mae Heath, went missing decades ago. Her remains were found years later. 

Commissioner Patricia Whitefoot, center, speaks about her sister, Daisy Mae Heath, whose remains were found decades after she went missing, and challenges in communicating with law enforcement. Credit: Bella Davis, New Mexico In Depth

Several agencies worked on her sister’s case, Whitefoot said, and officers typically didn’t identify themselves or where they worked. Over the years, she didn’t know who to contact for updates on the case. 

“How did I know I was supposed to keep track of them?” Whitefoot said.

Many other families have reported similar experiences. 

Whitefoot asked the panelists about the training law enforcement receive. 

“What kind of education is being done and conducted, particularly with non-Native officers, and our own tribal officers as well?” she said. “What do you know about historical and cultural oppression of our people? What about the impact of boarding schools on the lives of our children, our families, my great grandparents, my ancestors, and our own experiences that we’ve had with boarding schools, as well?” 

Whitefoot was speaking of 408 boarding schools the U.S. operated or supported between 1819 and 1969 across 37 states (or then-territories). According to one estimate, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were taken from their families in an effort to strip them of their cultures and languages.

FBI analyst Don Metzmeier said the agency hosted 50 officers from around the state last fall for a cultural sensitivity training that was “eye-opening” for him.

“We’re still learning on this as we go but we do acknowledge that is a space that we need to do a better job,” he said.

New Mexico State Police Major Troy Velasquez, whose focus is recruiting, said young tribal police officers working where they grew up often report low pay and a lack of career advancement and training opportunities and eventually leave for other agencies.

That creates a hole in tribal communities, Velasquez said, because officers from elsewhere aren’t familiar with local customs and traditions.

Alexander Uballez, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, pointed to the work of the FBI’s Albuquerque field office to develop the nation’s first database of missing and murdered Indigenous people and increased community outreach over the past several years as examples of progress. The current FBI list of Native Americans missing from New Mexico and the Navajo Nation counts 200 people. 

“No amount of investigation, prosecution or years in prison will bring back a murdered loved one,” Uballez said. “It’s only through outreach, through education, prevention, that we truly confront this crisis.” 

Uballez also announced at Wednesday’s hearing the Department of Justice will be placing 10 attorneys and coordinators in five regions, including New Mexico and Arizona, to focus on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

Crotty, the Navajo Nation Council delegate, said there’s a need not only to remedy law enforcement issues but to explore preventative measures. She said resources need to be consistent “so that we’re not back to this point in five, 10, 25 years,” adding that Indigenous communities have suffered from “intentional underfunding.”

Many of the solutions discussed on Wednesday are in a response plan published last year by New Mexico’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force created by the state Legislature in 2019.  

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed two bills into law last year that were priorities for the task force. One created a missing Indigenous persons specialist position in the Attorney General’s Office and the other started an annual event meant to connect families with missing relatives and law enforcement. 

But Lujan Grisham has faced criticism from task force members. During this year’s legislative session two task force members said they were considering resigning after the governor appointed James Mountain as cabinet secretary of the Indian Affairs Department, where the task force is housed. Mountain, a former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, was indicted in 2008 but never convicted on charges of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery against a household member.

Chastity Sandoval (Diné), a member and tribal legal advocate for Nambé Pueblo, told New Mexico In Depth in April that there weren’t any resignations as far as she knew. But she said she was concerned about how the task force’s ongoing work would be impacted if any members left because of the appointment, which Lujan Grisham has continued to defend. 

Meanwhile, legislation addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people was largely absent from this year’s session. 

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