Federal commission asks Indigenous communities to share stories on missing and murdered relatives

People can share experiences in person until Friday, by email until August to help survivors, families, law enforcement, tribal and federal leaders draft recommendations for Congress on how to address crisis

By: - June 29, 2023 5:00 am
Four chairs with colorful skirts sit in a row.

Four chairs with skirts were arranged in front of the commission’s table at the panel hearings on Wednesday, honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

Daisy Mae Heath went missing just before Halloween in 1987. After 20 years, her sister Patricia Whitefoot was sent partial remains after federal law enforcement ruled the death a homicide.

If alive, Daisy would be a Yakama Nation elder in her sixties.

This is one story of many in the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Whitefoot (Yakama Nation) now, 35 years after her sister went missing, works on a federal commission that aims to address this issue and wants to hear from others who have gone through similar situations.

This is the work the Not Invisible Act Commission is doing, a group established with a corresponding federal law passed in 2020. 

The commission’s purpose is to deliver recommendations to Congress on how to best address and fight missing and murdered Native people or those who have been victims of human trafficking.

On Thursday and Friday, commissioners are set up in Albuquerque, New Mexico to hear from survivors, families, law enforcement, task forces and others who want to speak about issues regarding the disappearance and violence facing Indigenous people for decades.

How to testify

People can speak to the commission Thursday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., or Friday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the Albuquerque Crowne Plaza at 1901 University Boulevard NE.

Community members can also submit written testimonies until Aug. 10 via email to [email protected] with the subject line “NIAC Testimony.”

There are mental health professionals and victim specialists — designated with a blue strip on their name tags — available if anyone needs them during the public comment on Thursday and Friday. Other services like telehealth, traditional healing and community resource lists will also be available.

Commission member Glenn Melville (Makah Tribe) noted at a panel hearing on Wednesday that any statements people make to the commission could be publicly released in the future. However, the public comment period the rest of the week is closed to media members.

This is the sixth hearing the commission has held. There will be one more in-person hearing in Montana in late July, and virtual hearings in early August.

Commissioners will develop a report after all the hearings with recommendations on how to address the crisis, including suggestions on law enforcement resources, resources for victims and families, and necessary administrative changes.

The report should be finalized around fall, John Grandy, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said. It has to be finished by October.

It will then be sent to Congress. Grandy said it will likely be publicly available at some point.

Heidi Todacheene (Navajo) is the senior advisor to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. She said the commission’s work won’t get done overnight, but community participation and testimonies will be used to fight and address injustices.

She brought up a life-threatening domestic violence incident in Albuquerque she survived, an experience that gives her first-hand knowledge “to the lack of critical resources for survivors and families that’s desperately needed.”

The public hearings over the next two days will help combat the “long-standing epidemic” that is the missing and murdered Indigenous people’s crisis and human trafficking, she said, which lacks national attention.

Federal officials sit in a row at a wraparound table, speaking into microphones.
(From left to right) Senior Advisor to the Interior Secretary Heidi Todacheene, New Mexico U.S. Attorney Alexander Uballez and Senior Policy Advisor for Native Affairs at White House Elizabeth Hidalgo Reese address the commission on Wednesday, June 28th, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

Elizabeth Hidalgo Reese (Nambé) is the White House senior policy advisor for Native affairs. She agreed that the commission needs to hear from the affected communities to “understand this problem from every angle.”

“I know from my own experience that nothing about this feels right. It’s all wrong. And it feels wrong,” Reese said. “It’s wrong that this happened. It’s wrong that systems fail to protect you or your loved ones. And it’s wrong that now you need to talk about it as a part of fixing it.”

Reese said these issues aren’t invisible, despite people feeling that way, and said she recognizes “what days like this take, what they cost and how they feel.”

Staff to be sent to NM

Uballez announced on Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Interior plans to permanently place 10 attorneys and staff throughout the U.S. to aid with the missing and murdered Indigenous people’s crisis. He didn’t specify a timeline.

He said New Mexico will be getting an assistant U.S. attorney whose job it is to “promote communication, coordination and collaboration” and work on investigations of unresolved cases.

Alexander Uballez, U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, this approach is meant to be victim-centered, trauma-informed and culturally competent.

Investigations or putting people in prison won’t bring back a murdered loved one, he said, education and prevention can help confront the crisis.

He said prosecutions are still part of the strategy to combat the violence. Prosecutions have increased by 13% in the past year, he said, including an 83% increase in violent crime prosecutions.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, Uballez said.

“I want to thank the families and friends of missing and murdered Indigenous people who will testify here this week in the tribal community,” he said. “Together, we will meet the case of each missing and murdered Indigenous person with urgency, transparency and coordination.”

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.