A skirt honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives on display at a panel hearing held by the Not Invisible Act Commission in Albuquerque on June, 29, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)
Before Daisy Mae Heath went missing in 1987, she told her sister Patricia Whitefoot to be aware of racism and cultural oppression against Native American people.
That’s what Whitefoot (Yakama) keeps in mind still to this day when the Federal Bureau of Investigation looks into cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people.
She’s never forgotten how the FBI handled her sister’s case.
It took over 20 years for Daisy’s remnants to be found.
Whitefoot said the FBI didn’t give her any consistent or significant information when looking into Daisy’s case.
“It’s difficult to say how angry you are about all of that, and the anger that family members carry,” she said.
Whitefoot said multiple agencies were involved in her sister’s case, and it was confusing to keep track of everything and everyone.
“They told me their name and only one time. How was I supposed to keep track of them?” she said. “And I never knew which agency they came from, whether they came from Spokane, whether they came from Seattle. I didn’t know I was to pay attention.”
Her words got choked up as she started crying.
She explained this to FBI agents at a panel hearing held by the Not Invisible Act Commission on Wednesday. This commission, which Whitefoot is a member of, has traveled around the U.S. to hear from people about issues surrounding the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Speaking to the commission
People can testify to the commission in New Mexico Friday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the Albuquerque Crowne Plaza at 1901 University Boulevard NE.
Community members can also email written testimonies until Aug. 10 to [email protected] with the subject line “NIAC Testimony.”
Commissioners will eventually develop a report for Congress on how to confront and address this crisis and the issues that plague it.
Whitefoot said she often wonders about the connection between racism and bias and if it is part of why the FBI does not regularly share information about these missing persons cases.
She asked if that’s meant to “keep us in chaos, to keep us down?”
Whitefoot said poor internet or cell phone services, something prevalent for many Native nations, creates barriers that further highlight the need for access to communication for these cases.
“Meaningful communication with families — that simply isn’t there,” she said. “Why does the FBI not speak to us?”
Raul Bujanda is an FBI special agent in charge. He said the FBI’s intentions are to be transparent, sharing as much information as they can about the case and letting families know who they’re working with.
Whitefoot asked if federal officers get Native-focused cultural training so they understand how to go about these cases.
“Do you understand the history of genocide?” she said. “Because to me, that’s what continues to go on with our missing murdered Indigenous women and our relatives, our families.”
FBI Analyst Don Metzmeier told her agents had their first cultural competency training in New Mexico last fall, learning about traditions different Native nations follow that they need to know, like who to shake hands with or how to talk about the dead.
He said officers asked for more trainings like that.
“It was eye-opening for me,” he said.
Metzmeier said the FBI can’t hide from tough conversations with people who have a right to be angry with the agency. He said the FBI will move forward to address this crisis, making mistakes along the way, but not waiting for perfection to finally take action.
“We need to have hard conversations,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Mixed responses on resource requests
Commission member Eric Broderick asked what resources the FBI needs in order to properly deal with cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people, so they can be treated the same way similar cases would be dealt with in other states that involve people who aren’t Native American.
Bujanda said though the federal agency could do more with additional resources, the FBI will just have to work harder.
“When it comes to the federal government and resources, we don’t ask for anything,” Bujanda said. “We work with what we have.”
Commission member Leanne Guy is the executive director for the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition. Her sister-in-law disappeared more than 20 years ago.
Guy (Navajo) said she’s curious as to why the FBI wouldn’t ask for more resources, “given their responsibility to Indian Country” and the many cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people along with their families that are seeking justice.
Guy said she hears from families that don’t know the status of their cases, and the FBI could voice the need for more resources at this forum to better respond to those families.
“This is an opportunity that I think we could highlight the needs of FBI,” she said.
Bujanda said the New Mexico FBI does ask for resources. He said the request isn’t falling on deaf ears, but “it just falls on the order of priorities that the FBI has.”
He said there aren’t Native nations all over the country so not everyone understands the need for the FBI to handle these missing and murdered Indigenous people’s cases.
“We ask for resources all the time,” he said. “It’s one of those things a lot of people just don’t understand.”
Navajo Nation Council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, another commission member, said Native people going missing isn’t a rare situation, and federal officials haven’t historically helped.
“I don’t think it’s just a unique situation that our relatives were exploited and they were taken from New Mexico communities like Gallup, and we did not see that response,” she said.
Crotty said it’s necessary to deliver a report to Congress with specific recommendations for long-term resources that the FBI needs.
A panel earlier in the day highlighted the need for more incentives to help recruit and retain tribal law enforcement officers. Crotty said just like the commissioners will tell Congress about that, they need to know how the FBI needs support so work can actually get done on this crisis.
“The families are tired of walking. They’re tired of protesting. They’re tired of just everything,” Crotty said. “They just want justice.”
Metzmeier said a national standardization of data would be helpful. The FBI agents didn’t mention many other specific resources that could aid them.
Crotty said she’s concerned with the amount of participation she’s seen from the FBI in general. She said the agency needs to be held accountable.
She said the FBI is decades behind on data-gathering and sharing it with the public.
“We’re trying to play catch up, and so we really need you to be honest,” she said.
Bujanda acknowledged that the year’s-worth of data the FBI has now is good but doesn’t really make sense when the FBI has known about this crisis for so long. He said he hadn’t heard about a data backlog and wants to know more specifics about that.
He also told commission members to send any families who aren’t getting updates about cases to him “because we are completely transparent within the state of New Mexico.”
“If there’s something that you see that is wrong, that the FBI is not fulfilling, that the FBI is not transparent about, it stops with this guy right here,” he said, referring to himself.
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