Missing Indigenous women: Activists spur a reckoning

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“In my heart I want to believe that nobody is ever going to have to go through what I went through, that one day it’s just all going to stop,” says Eugenia Charles-Newton, a member of the Navajo Nation Council who says she was abducted as a teenager.
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To this day, Native people – particularly Native women – go missing and are killed at far higher rates than other ethnic groups. Their cases are often never solved. 

No one single cause lies behind the crisis. Law enforcement agencies are understaffed. Jurisdictional issues over who handles cases slow and complicate investigations. Social and cultural impediments add to the problems, as does widespread poverty.

Why We Wrote This

As the issue of Native women who are missing or have been killed gains visibility, activists on tribal lands and politicians in corridors of power are devoting more resources to stemming the entrenched problem.

Yet today the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples movement is attracting new attention. Federal and state governments are pouring more resources into solving and preventing cases, while grassroots campaigns are fomenting concerted action.

Meskee Yatsayte is part of this grassroots system. And while physically searching New Mexico’s rugged terrain and helping operate a missing persons page on Facebook, she’s noticed a recent shift in her community.

“Families are finally feeling comfortable to come out and start talking,” she says. “It’s just amazing how many of these families pull together and work together to make a difference.”

Eugenia Charles-Newton could still be missing. 

Instead, she’s sitting at her desk in the chamber of the Navajo Nation Council. On a hot March afternoon, the chamber is cool and silent – as silent as she had been for decades.

It’s been about six months since she began talking publicly about her disappearance more than 20 years ago, when she was just a teenager. It hasn’t gotten any easier.

Why We Wrote This

As the issue of Native women who are missing or have been killed gains visibility, activists on tribal lands and politicians in corridors of power are devoting more resources to stemming the entrenched problem.

“It felt like, like it wasn’t real,” she recalls, falteringly. “But it was. I mean, it was real.”

The first thing she remembers noticing, after regaining consciousness, was how cold the ground was. It didn’t make sense. After all, it felt as if only moments before she had been at a flea market on a bright, hot summer day. Now, darkness surrounded her. She could kind of make out a roof overhead. She wondered if she was dreaming.

She felt groggy. She couldn’t move. She slipped in and out of consciousness, the passage of time marked by the cycle of sunlight and cold night air seeping through cracks in the wall.

She had been held for several days, she discovered later. During that time, she said at a meeting of the Navajo Nation Council last September, she had been beaten and raped repeatedly by a man from the reservation. 

“And ... nobody came looking for me,” she is saying now. “Nobody came out.”

She pauses to lift her glasses and wipe tears from her eyes. Her phone vibrates on the table, but she ignores it. She is silent for almost a minute.

“It wasn’t that my family didn’t love me; it was because the police told them it was going to be OK,” she says. “They believed what the police would tell them. And [the police] never came out, they never ...” Her voice trails off.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A billboard in Gallup, New Mexico, sponsored by a nonprofit, highlights the problem of Native women who have disappeared or been killed on tribal lands.

The story that Ms. Charles-Newton recounts illustrates a searing problem that has wracked Native families from Canada to the United States for decades – the killing or disappearance of Indigenous people.

To this day, Native people – particularly Native women – go missing and are killed at far higher rates than other ethnic groups, and their cases are often never solved. 

No one single cause lies behind the crisis. Law enforcement agencies are understaffed. Government assistance has been limited, and jurisdictional issues over who handles cases slow and complicate investigations. Social and cultural impediments add to the problems, as do widespread poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse on Native lands.

Yet today the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples (MMIP) movement is attracting new attention. Federal and state governments are pouring more resources into solving and preventing cases, while grassroots campaigns – often pioneered by victims and their families, and fueled by social media – are bringing concerted action in communities across tribal lands. 

That includes here in Navajo Nation, an area larger than Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined – vast swaths of which are uninhabited. People here have gone missing simply trying to walk home at night.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Many Navajo homes lie in remote parts of the reservation and often don’t have electricity.

With the rising voices of activists like Ms. Charles-Newton, people are hoping that happens with less frequency. She has become one of the tribe’s leading advocates, trying to raise awareness about the number of Navajo people who have disappeared or been killed, a cause aided by her position as one of 24 district delegates on the tribal council. 

“In my heart I want to believe that nobody is ever going to have to go through what I went through, that one day it’s just all going to stop,” says Ms. Charles-Newton. “I know that it’s going to be a long time before something like that happens. But at the same time, I think that there are some who have convinced me that as long as we keep working together, and as long as we keep talking about these things, change will happen.”

few dozen people gathered in a parking lot near a warehouse loading dock in a high-crime neighborhood of Vancouver, British Columbia, on Valentine’s Day in 1992.

The parking lot was where, weeks earlier, authorities had found the body of Cheryl Ann Joe. Her mother helped organize the gathering in honor of her daughter, and it would later become an annual march to bring attention to the disappearance or killing of Indigenous women and girls. It is considered the inception of the official MMIP movement.

In the U.S., Native American women are killed at almost three times the rate of white women, and up to 10 times the national average in some areas, according to a 2021 research summary by the National Congress of American Indians. As of 2020, the average time missing for a Native person in Arizona was 21 years, according to the organization. In Montana, Native people make up more than 25% of missing people despite representing only 6.6% of the state population.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Demonstrators display placards at a rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in October 2021 that draw attention to Indigenous women who are missing or have been killed.

But limited data and reporting problems continue to obscure the full scope of the MMIP crisis, experts say. Many disappearances aren’t reported – indeed, federal law doesn’t require tribal law enforcement agencies to report disappearances of people under age 21, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) – and Native women are often misclassified under other racial categories.

The vast majority of MMIP cases fall under the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement, in particular the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). But they’ve long done a poor job investigating these cases due to a combination of underfunding, limited resources, jurisdictional confusion, and racial bias, say advocacy groups and the GAO report. 

The FBI only investigates disappearances when foul play is involved, for example, while the BIA can investigate any disappearance with tribal police. If a Native person goes missing off tribal land, however, then state or local law enforcement must take up the case. (In nine states, state authorities also have jurisdiction over crimes committed on tribal land.)

This has often left families of missing Native people unsure of whom to call – if they choose to call anyone. And there has historically been little public pressure to change the process, since cases often receive scant attention from police, media, lawmakers, and even local communities.

The GAO report, released last year, offers a snapshot of the various issues. In 2020, four of seven BIA offices surveyed had vacancies for one-third to one-half of the agents who could work MMIP cases, according to the study. Federal agents often didn’t communicate adequately with victims’ families and were frequently indifferent about investigations. Tribal officials attributed this in part to “historic and systemic racism and prejudice” against Native people, particularly women.

Some of that may soon change. In 2020, Congress passed two bipartisan laws focused on improving the federal response to crimes against Indigenous women, including improving coordination between different law enforcement agencies. The legislation built on the work of Operation Lady Justice, a federal task force on missing and murdered Native peoples created by President Donald Trump in 2019. The BIA has also created a Missing and Murdered Unit, with offices around the country, to investigate active and cold MMIP cases.

But on the ground, families, victims, and activists complain that they’ve seen little progress so far. Some say the federal and state governments are talking to each other more about the issue, which is good, but they are not necessarily talking to them. 

“Families have been largely left out of that,” says Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, an advocacy group based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “These are two different systems, and they still feel very separate from each other.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Meskee Yatsayte co-founded Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives and works on a New Mexico task force that deals with missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Meskee Yatsayte is part of the grassroots system – a network of people in Indian Country who are taking their own initiative to help find missing people. She keeps a bag of “search stuff” in her truck. Stored under a seat, the pack includes hiking boots, flashlights, a reflective vest, a first-aid kit, a few cameras, and a drone.

On this day, she is standing in front of the county courthouse in Gallup, New Mexico. Sunglasses rest on her forehead. A turquoise necklace dangles from her neck. Her wide smile and laid-back demeanor belie a woman who has been immersed for nine years in the MMIP crisis, an experience that has molded her into a veteran civilian investigator.

Since 2013, her work has followed several tracks. She helps operate a Facebook page called Navajo Nation Missing Persons Updates, posting flyers she receives from relatives of missing individuals and developments in cases. (“HAVE YOU SEEN WAYLON TOM?” begins one recent post. “FOUND: Jamie Yazzie,” reads another.) She raises awareness through another group she co-founded, Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives. She helps report new missing people to NamUs, a national clearinghouse for missing and unidentified people. She also works on the New Mexico Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives task force.

And she searches for missing people herself. She has come to know the streets and storm drains of Gallup, as well as the rugged plains, dry gullies, and steep ridges of the reservation where a missing person might be. Every search is laborious, heart-wrenching – and often dangerous. But like many grassroots advocates tackling the MMIP crisis, Ms. Yatsayte has a personal connection to it.

On May 1, 2020, her uncle decided to walk 4 miles into Gallup and get a bottle of Gatorade, as he often did. It turns out that was the day New Mexico shut down access to the town because of the pandemic.

No one is sure what happened next, but he never came back. It was night by the time Ms. Yatsayte heard, and the temperature had dropped below freezing.

“My little sensors just went off,” she says. “Something was wrong.”

She searched all night, finding nothing. A month went by – still nothing. The police had set up barricades around town the day he went missing, so he might have taken a longer route. 

Using a four-wheeler, Ms. Yatsayte checked some hogbacks off the highway. She eventually found him in a dip underneath a tree, where he had died. He was 2 1/2 miles from home. “I made sure that my family didn’t see,” she says. “That was one thing I was so protective of. For me, I can handle things like that.”  

She wishes she had checked those hogbacks sooner. But she is at least appreciative that the family had some closure. 

“We were able to bring our loved one home,” she says. “There are just so many that [are] still searching. They have absolutely no answers, even after decades.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Family, friends, and advocates for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women march in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in October 2021, in part to draw attention to the disappearance of Pepita Redhair.

Last October, some 70 people marched through Albuquerque’s Old Town neighborhood. Passing boutiques selling Native American jewelry and artwork, the crowd chanted “no more stolen lives!” and “justice for Pepita!” 

The rally came amid a nationwide outcry over the disappearance of Gabby Petito, a Florida woman who had gone missing two months earlier while traveling cross-country with her boyfriend. But the small event in Albuquerque centered on a different woman, Pepita Redhair, from Crownpoint, New Mexico, who had disappeared 19 months before.

Ms. Redhair’s mother spoke at the march, as did other relatives of missing and murdered Navajo people. Ms. Charles-Newton
shared the story of her harrowing disappearance, too. “The same stories they share whenever a white woman goes missing, we have the same hurt,” the Navajo council delegate said. “We want the same justice.”

There wasn’t always such solidarity with and sympathy for victims and families of missing and murdered Native people. Just raising awareness and speaking out about the issue can be dangerous, since some people resist having cases investigated.

Ms. Yatsayte says she received her first threat in 2015 and stayed anonymous until 2017. Once, she and others were notifying people about a missing woman who was a victim of domestic violence. A man warned them to get the woman’s information off social media “or he would find us.”

“Families are finally feeling comfortable to come out and start talking. ... It’s just amazing how many of these families pull together and work together to make a difference,” says Ms. Yatsayte.

It can be taboo to talk about death and dead people in Navajo culture, too. Yet as the MMIP crisis becomes more visible, some of the stigmas surrounding the issue are starting to erode.

“Our younger generation is more open-minded, but still we carry that tradition with us, because that’s what we were taught by our elders,” she says. “We do have to respect that when someone voices that [more traditional] opinion.” 

Screen grab from Facebook
Meskee Yatsayte operates a Facebook page called Navajo Nation Missing Persons Updates, which posts flyers she receives from relatives of people who have disappeared, as well as developments in cases.

Impediments remain in tackling the issue, though, one of which is law enforcement. 

“Jurisdictional issues are a problem for us Native Americans – they’re a huge problem,” said Jerome Lucero, governor of Pueblo of Zia, a reservation 40 miles north of Albuquerque, at the Pepita Redhair rally. “That’s why it’s so hard for us to get justice.”

In addition to not having jurisdiction over killings and some kidnappings on Native lands, tribal authorities also have limited jurisdiction to detain non-Native people suspected of a crime. And even if they did have more authority, officers like Mr. Lucero, who is a member of the Zia tribe’s police department, say they barely have the resources to handle their current workload.

He has one officer for 124,000 acres of land – an area larger than New Orleans. The Navajo Nation, the second-largest tribe in the country, doesn’t have it any easier. As of October 2020, the Navajo Nation Police Department had just 264 personnel, of which 135 were patrol officers, for a reservation the size of West Virginia.

Some police stations don’t have jails, and the department has had to relocate two stations recently due to hazardous and unsanitary conditions. In 2020, Ms. Charles-Newton tried to get federal funding so the tribe could set up its own medical-examiners office and help ease some of the burdens. According to tribal police, Navajo criminal investigators spend as much as 40% of their time serving as coroners.

Phillip Francisco, who stepped down in January as chief of the Navajo Nation Police Department, says he understands the frustrations of families of missing and murdered Navajo people. “They need a resolution, but sometimes there’s just nothing there,” he says. “Sometimes investigators have exhausted every single lead, and unless something else comes up there’s really nothing they can do.”

Yet he believes the crisis transcends law enforcement. “To take care of this problem of missing people, we have to take care of the problem at the root, which is jobs, upbringing, domestic violence,” he says. “That will help prevent people going missing in the first place.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Navajo Nation Council Chamber and other tribal offices are located in Window Rock, Arizona.

Today there are 17 Bureau of Indian Affairs offices around the country that have at least one agent dedicated to solving MMIP cases, according to a spokesperson for the agency. The agency’s Missing and Murdered Unit has worked to enhance NamUs, and has enabled BIA to expand partnerships with other federal agencies and offices, like the FBI’s forensic laboratory and the U.S. Marshals Service Missing Child Unit, the spokesperson said in a statement. The Missing and Murdered Unit has six offices around the country.

But the agencies have more work to do in overcoming entrenched skepticism and distrust of the federal government among Native Americans. Ms. Yatsayte says the government needs to listen to and take recommendations from victims, families, and advocates about the MMIP crisis.

Still, on the ground, progress is being made. Mobilization and advocacy are hitting new heights, data gaps are being filled, and partnerships and coalitions are forming.

Many states – including New Mexico, Minnesota, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, and Wisconsin – have formed task forces in recent years to curb the problem. Ms. Yatsayte is close to finishing a 30-page “tool kit” that gives families instructions on what to do when a family member goes missing. 

The Sovereign Bodies Institute – a nonprofit research organization based in Northern California that maintains perhaps the largest and most comprehensive database of MMIP cases in North America – has opened a second office in Montana. California and Montana have some of the highest numbers of MMIP cases. 

In April,the organization announced it was suspending taking on new cases “due to an overwhelming influx of clients since the beginning of 2022.” But Annita Lucchesi, the group’s executive director, is heartened by what she has seen in recent years.

“Grassroots advocates are making all sorts of progress,” she says. “We have the expertise to do the work in a way that’s truly effective.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Eugenia Charles-Newton, a Navajo Council delegate who has been speaking out about the missing persons issue, stands in the council chamber – which is shaped like a traditional Navajo hogan with a timber roof – in Window Rock, Arizona.

Ms. Charles-Newton has been trying to get more resources to fight the problem for years. She tried again last September, when she urged the Navajo Nation Council to reallocate funds from the tribe’s Washington, D.C., office to set up a special division to prosecute cases involving missing people.

It was the first time she’d spoken publicly about her tragedy. 

To this day, she doesn’t know how she got away on that night more than 20 years ago. She doesn’t know if she escaped, or if the man released her. She just remembers it was dark. The man had taken her glasses, so what little she could see was a blur.

Naked, except for one shoe, she says she stumbled across the rocky landscape toward a light, which turned out to be a nearby road. A car passed by, and, remarkably, the driver was someone she’d known since middle school. He put a jacket on her and took her to the hospital.

A police officer took her statement at the hospital, but, she says, law enforcement authorities doubted her and never properly investigated. She says the case was never referred to the local U.S. attorney, who would have had jurisdiction over sexual assault cases at the time. No arrests were made, she says. The Navajo Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on the case.

Still, the worst was yet to come.

“In fact, I represent the man who did this to me,” she said in her public comments at the Navajo Nation Council meeting in September. “As a council delegate, this man is in my community.”

Ms. Charles-Newton said her experience and the desire to keep others from going through a similar ordeal helped motivate her to attend law school, become a prosecutor on the reservation, and run for the council. 

Still, she knows there is a long way to go to prevent the disappearance and killing of Indigenous people. Her efforts to fund a missing persons unit failed by one vote.

“Some things have changed” for the better, she says now, “but I think some things still remain the same.” 

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