Leaders fighting for missing or murdered Indigenous people call for help from Congress

Unstable funding and limits on tribal authority stall alert systems, law enforcement and justice, advocates say

By: - March 4, 2022 11:00 am

Pauline Sarracino hugs Shaylee Toya while holding a sign bearing her mother’s name as they begin to march into the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on Feb. 24, 2022. The signing ceremony for N.M. legislation on missing and murdered Indigenous women drew advocates searching for family members to demonstrate in Albuquerque. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

Two women leading efforts to stop violence against Native Americans in New Mexico testified before Congress Thursday, requesting support for community movements with legislation and federal funding.

Angel Charley, executive director for Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said families and advocacy groups are doing full-time work looking for missing people or seeking justice for someone killed — oftentimes spending personal money — and leading reform for a law enforcement system embedded with failures and disregard.

“We continue to have marches,” Charley (Laguna) said in an interview after her testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “Community continues to show up and organize themselves so that there is a reason for media to come and respond and cover the story. That has been the way that our families have carried forward.”

She said Congress needs to act.

To start, Charley wants the federal government to give Tribes the authority to prosecute non-Indigenous people in tribal courts by passing a new version of the Violence Against Women Act. The law should align with language that requires the U.S. to follow through on its trust responsibilities to assist tribal governments in protecting Native women.

“You know that our communities, our Tribal leaders, they’ve provided the answers time and time again. Congress has the reports. The DOJ has the reports. They have years and years of testimony,” Charley said.

The National Congress of American Indians established the Taskforce on Violence Against Native Women in 2003 and has reported that 34% of Native women are raped in their lifetimes, and 39% are victims of domestic violence.

You know that our communities, our Tribal leaders, they've provided the answers time and time again. Congress has the reports. The DOJ has the reports. They have years and years of testimony.

– Angel Charley, Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women

On top of that, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office study, U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute 67% of sexual abuse and related matters that occur in tribal territories.

Reported missing, but attention still absent

“Right now, the majority of tribes throughout the United States are not able to prosecute non-Native offenders,” she said. “What that means is someone who is not tribal can come on to tribal land, commit these crimes and not be held accountable through the tribal judicial system.”

The new version also includes language to address issues of trafficking, stalking and sexual violence.

“It is through the Violence Against Women Act and the tribes’ Tribal Law and Order Act. That we seek justice for our own communities.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) hosted the conversation through the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee. It looked at the issues facing women from communities of color who are assaulted, kidnapped or killed. According to the committee, “In 2020, 40% of all women and girls reported missing were people of color — 100,000 out of 250,000 missing — despite making up just 16% of the population.”

Natalie Wilson from the Black and Missing Foundation testified about disconnected law enforcement actions where police do not seem to take these investigations seriously, often acting late. That scenario is similar to the experiences of Indigenous families.

Pamela Foster also testified before the subcommittee. In 2016, her two children were kidnapped on their way home from school in Shiprock, N.M.

Hundreds gather in Shiprock to call for justice and answers for MMIWR

“I entered the longest hours of my life waiting, hoping and praying for my children, for their safe return,” she said. “I was in shock, and I reached out to law enforcement, and the communication between law enforcement and myself was little to none.”

Foster (Diné) explained that police response was delayed due to jurisdictional issues between local, federal and tribal police. She struggled to get an Amber Alert sent out, because at the time, the Navajo Nation did not issue those alerts. Ultimately, she got attention with posts on social media hours before an Amber Alert was disseminated.

“We didn’t receive that help until 12 hours — 12 hours — after the abduction of my children.”

And it was too late.

Her son was discovered wandering near a highway, but her daughter Ashlynne Mike was found beaten to death with signs of sexual assault.

“If my daughter had been abducted and taken off the reservation, there would have been a quicker response to start searching for her and start an investigation,” Foster said. “The things that I needed, the resources that I needed would have been available for her. And unfortunately, since the events happen on the reservation, the resources that I needed, weren’t available … to start the search.”

The event turned Foster into a community leader fighting for victim’s rights.

“I felt that I needed to have the justice system redone to make it a safer place for our communities,” she said.

She led a push for Congress to pass the Ashlynne Mike Amber Alert in Indian Country Act which gives tribal governments the authority to issue the missing persons alerts.

Funding problems persist, though, limiting the ability of tribes to fully implement the alert system.

According to a 2019 report by the Department of Justice, staffing shortages, training issues, and access to missing persons databases are ongoing barriers to getting these tribal missing persons alert systems fully off the ground.

Money is also an issue for the direct aid Charley’s organization does — on-the ground work with families or people who do return home. She said the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women is a grantee program through the Department of Justice. This means it survives on a one-year budget.

“The administrative burden of opening and closing federal grants with a one-year cycle keeps us from doing the actual work on the ground and in the community,” she said. “Tribal coalitions like ourselves need a multi-year commitment from the federal government to carry on this work.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.