Seraphine Warren, who helped organize the event in Shiprock, lost her aunt Ella Mae Begay seven months ago. She and her family has been searching for her, and said they have little information from law enforcement. (Photo by Yasmin Khan for Source NM)
When Seraphine Warren couldn’t get answers from law enforcement after her aunt Ella Mae Begay, 62, went missing seven months ago, she started walking.
“I figured we were the only family that was treated like this, and we needed help,” said Warren, who, two weeks after Begay disappeared, walked more than 425 miles from her aunt’s house in Sweetwater to Window Rock, Arizona to bring attention to the case. Because of that trek, other families contacted her with their stories of missing family members. “It was really mind-blowing to hear their stories. The same things were happening to them,” she said. “Some of them have been looking for their loved ones for years.”
Warren and her family were among hundreds of people gathered in Shiprock, N.M., on Saturday, all sharing similar stories of loss, grief and issues with law enforcement. Families and friends of missing and murdered people walked in from all four directions, starting 5 miles from Nizhóní Park. They carried signs for their loved ones, as well as water, meat, fruit, and vegetables to share, each food representing one of the directions. In the middle of the park there was a fire, and people could ask for photos of their missing and murdered to be blessed with burning cedar and sage.
Darlene Gomez, a lawyer representing several families of missing and murdered Indigeous women and relatives, helped organize Saturday’s event. She said cases go unsolved in part because of a lack of coordination between multiple law enforcement agencies with overlapping jurisdictions, from Navajo Nation police to the FBI.
“Although Tribes are sovereign, they are dependent on the federal government to prosecute these cases when there is foul play,” Gomez said. “The FBI should be called in when it’s a major crime but oftentimes they are not.”
Gomez pointed out that tribal law enforcement only has the ability to sentence people to one year in jail or a $5,000 fine, and that Navajo Nation criminal investigators have up to 1,000 cases at a time, many of which are not investigated at all. According to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, there are about 6,000 missing Indigenous people in the U.S., but only 116 of those cases are registered in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS), an information clearinghouse for missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons cases across the U.S.
“New Mexico has the highest percentage of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the whole United States,” she said. “Native people are going missing and murdered, and no one cares. Law enforcement doesn’t care, and there is no justice for them.”
Ranelle Rose Bennett, 34, went missing from her home in Hogback, N.M., on June 15, 2021. Her father Jay Bennett said he’s frustrated with law enforcement. He and his family members have been searching for Ranelle on their own.
“We have just been going out, and out, and out looking for her and we’re not succeeding,” he said.
That’s common across all MMWR situations, Gomez said. Bennett said his family is not getting answers from law enforcement.
“There is an investigator in Albuquerque, but they haven’t told us where they are with the investigation,” Bennett said. “And here with the Navajo police, we’re not getting help. … We just don’t know where to turn to. It’s devastating. But our medicine man says she is still alive, that she’ll be back.”
Bennett also has a nephew who’s been missing for two years, he said, and he wants law enforcement to “wake up” and know that his family and the families of others need help.
Lela Mailman was supposed to meet her daughter Melanie James eight years ago at Farmington’s Goodwill store, and she never arrived, Mailman said. She waited to hear back from James for three days, and when she went to make a missing persons report at the Farmington Police Department, she was turned away.
“The investigator told me that it takes 48 hours to make a report. I told him it had been three days. He said the 48 hours started from the time I stepped into the police department,” she said. “We lost a lot of time.”
She’s been looking for her daughter for eight years.
“My case has been thrown to five detectives,” Mailman said. “They are usually either out of the office or just don’t take our calls. We keep getting the same report from the first investigator. They just repeat it and repeat it.”
Like Bennett, she said law enforcement needs more communication with families and less judgment, bias and stigmatization.
“A lot of times, they (the police) just keep bringing up their past,” Mailman said. “We’ve all made mistakes, but we can’t judge these people by their past. They’re our kids, our aunts, our uncles. It hurts, and we want answers about what is going on.”
Daryl Noon, who was sworn in as Navajo Chief of Police on Jan. 3, said his department has been working to help families of MMIWR but admitted that there needs to be better training for law enforcement officials, according to the Arizona Mirror. He said the department has been criticized for not keeping families updated on what is happening with their cases and said they “just need to do better.”
In November, Presdent Joe Biden signed an executive order meant to address violence against Indigeous communites, titled “Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People.” The order is aimed at policy, stating that the Biden administration will work to strengthen criminal justice in Tribal nations.
There are MMIWR cases that have been cold for decades.
Legislators in Santa Fe introduced legislation to address the issue again this year.
One, SB 13, would declare the MMIWR crisis an emergency and establish a “missing in New Mexico” event that would be an opportunity for families to meet with federal, state, local and tribal governments to update their cases, submit DNA records, meet with an investigator or file missing persons reports. The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate on Jan. 28 and will make its way through the House before heading to the governor’s desk for signature.
Another measure, SB 12, would create a missing Indigenous persons specialist position within the office of the N.M. Attorney General, and build out an online hub for information about these cases, along with a support a network. Under the measure, the AG’s Office would offer grants so Tribal communities can connect and participate. The measure hasn’t really started making its way through the session yet.
Although many people at the event in Shiprock supported the state legislation, some said there needs to be more movement to help families.
Kara Plummer was at the gathering with her sister, Alicia Rodriguez, both from Redrock N.M.
“I think it’s definitely nice to finally recognize us,” Plummer said. “We appreciate it, but we want more than that. It needs to be a continuous awareness.” The sisters said they have a grandmother who was murdered, but it was only recently that they connected her story to the MMIWR epidemic.
“I was like wow, I didn’t even realize she was part of those statistics, and there are so many families like that,” Plummer said. “There is so much trauma, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. I felt a little ashamed, but she’s not forgotten. That’s why we are here now.”
This story was updated on Feb. 2 at 9 a.m. The caption for the photo of Jay Bennett and others has been updated to correctly reflect who is in the photo. We apologize for the error.
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