Pauline Sarracino (middle) holds a sign with her granddaughter’s name outside the Pueblo Cultural Center before the signing ceremony for legislation on missing and murdered Indigenous women Feb. 22, 2022. Family members say the abrupt ending of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force represents another closed door. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly / Source NM)
For many families of the scores missing and murdered Indigenous people in New Mexico, the onus of finding their family members and getting justice is largely on their shoulders.
They sell jewelry and Navajo tacos to get the financial support for their countless hours of searching and to bring awareness to their cause. They print their own posters and organize their own rallies with other families who know their pain — often while going days, months or even years without hearing from law enforcement.
There were 192 people missing from places in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation as of last month, according to the FBI.
The abrupt ending of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force last month was like another door slamming shut on their path of justice, family members said.
The New Mexico Indian Affairs Department and representatives from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office hosted a meeting on Wednesday to take public comment about ending the task force where families and advocates expressed concern that work that still needed to be done to address the crisis would go unfinished.
“By ending the task force, what you have literally done is you have stopped our access to anyone in the federal government, in the state government and in the tribal government arena,” said Darlene Gomez, a task force member who is an attorney for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. “Because now we don’t have the opportunity to sit like this and to be able to reach out to one another … and build trust.”
Neither the Indian Affairs Department nor the governor’s office outlined concrete next steps, instead referencing the task force response plan as a guide for the future. While the plan, which was created by the task force members, contains short-term solutions, it is not clear how it will measure success.
The governor’s office said previously that it ended the task force because it met its objectives with the creation of the response plan, which was completed in May 2022. It never explained why the group retained funding and continued to convene for more than a year after that.
Becky Martinez (Diné), a task force member whose brother Calvin Martinez has been missing since 2019, said her brother’s disappearance changed her fundamentally — from how she perceives people to what she watches on TV. She spends many late nights these days watching crime and mystery programs, something she was never interested in before, wondering if anything she’s seeing might explain what happened to her brother.
Martinez spoke about the repeated trauma she’s had to go through while looking for answers as she tearfully addressed the meeting’s attendees. Much of finding her brother has been repetition. She’s had to give the same testimony over and over. She bounced between jurisdictions trying to report his disappearance only to be told she would have to go somewhere else. A cotton swab test she had done still hasn’t appeared in the system, and she wondered if that was yet another step she’d have to complete again.
Her brother is the third person in the family who has gone missing or been murdered, including her grandfather and an uncle.
“I’m probably the only one in my family that’s really going to recognize that that’s three generations in a row,” Martinez said. “That shouldn’t happen. It should not.”
Only four people attended the public comment. Families and advocates cited financial barriers, work and child care obligations, and long distance travel as reasons the 10 a.m. weekday meeting was not accessible to everyone who wanted the task force to continue.
These disconnects, they added, are why task force members and families of missing and murdered Indigenous people are hesitant to disband and turn over the implementation of the plan to government agencies while losing their ability to give direct feedback.
“These people — I didn’t know who they were — but I’m on the same level as them now because they know my pain and I know their pain. They’re my family. They’re my support system. And if I don’t have them, I don’t have nobody. I don’t even have you guys,” Martinez said. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. So you guys have to think about how you’re a huge support system for all of New Mexico, not just us. And I say it for all of New Mexico, all of the missing people, all of the murdered people.”
Vangie Randall-Shorty (Diné) spoke to the agencies about her son Zachariah Juwaun Shorty who went missing in 2020 and was found dead on the Navajo Nation. She said she was frustrated by how the investigation stalled even though there was a body.
Advocates said the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people is entrenched in hundreds of years of violence and genocide against Indigenous people that continues in the form of neglecting victims.
“This is how we get treated with peoples’ lives, people we loved,” said Vandee Crane, founder of the Rise in Love Foundation, which serves to support victims in healing from ancestral trauma.
It’s dehumanizing. It’s historical for us. And the dehumanization is absolutely retraumatizing.
– Vandee Crane
Gomez said she’s done more than $1 million in pro bono work for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people,and stressed the importance of providing them legal aid. She requested a possibility for another executive order to create another task force and asked for clear data to show the work being done as a result of the response plan.
While the governor’s office promised communication with families and former task force members, it was not immediately clear if and how information would be provided or if such data exists.
Gomez said accountability was a prime reason the task force needs to continue.
“To get people to commit to a project, they’re not going to do that because they have 100 other projects going on in their tribe,” Gomez said. “So the beauty of having this task force and having the people on it, they were all accountable to one another and to their own nations that they represent. And you can’t find that any other way.”
James Mountain, cabinet secretary of the Indian Affairs Department, said that while he couldn’t make “a bunch of promises,” he was taking the concerns of the families seriously and was committed to achieving the goals of the response plan. He later told Source New Mexico that the Indian Affairs Department finished filling its vacancies and now has the adequate amount of staff to dedicate to the issue.
Family members said they wanted to be secure that all people had the opportunity to find justice for their loved ones.
“These are just my tears you see,” Martinez said. “There’s a lot more out there.”
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