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Hundreds gather in Shiprock to demand justice for their missing and murdered Indigenous relatives

New Mexico has the highest rate of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives in the nation, but many of those left behind face enormous bureaucratic hurdles to getting justice in these cases. Hundreds of people gathered in Shiprock last Saturday to honor those who have been lost and call for change.

People walked in from all four directions, starting five miles from Nizhóní Park. They carried signs and pictures of their loved ones, as well as water, meat, fruit, and vegetables to share. At a fire in the middle of the park they sought blessings of burning cedar.

Seraphine Warren, who organized the event, has been looking for her aunt Ella Mae Begay for seven months. She said she only got help from law enforcement for a short time.

"Our law enforcement are short-staffed, and they lack training. Our jurisdictions, and our laws are just outdated," said Warren.  

Later on, Warren became deeply emotional when she spoke to the crowd.

"Everything is at a standstill when someone goes missing," she said. "Because you don’t know who to ask to help. It got to the point that there were only 6 of us searching and nobody helping us. What do you guys expect us to do now?"

There are MMIWR cases that have been cold for decades, with families spending their own time and money looking for loved ones. It’s a huge financial burden for many of them. Cases go unsolved in part because of a lack of coordination between multiple law enforcement agencies with different jurisdictions, from the Navajo Nation to city police departments to the FBI.

Vangi Randall Shorty’s son, Zachariah, was found shot to death in a field in Nenahnezad, N.M. in July 2020.

"And our problem is a jurisdiction problem because we live in Kirtland and they found him in Nenahnezad. Which doesn’t help us at all. It’s very frustrating," Shorty said.

Lela Mailman’s daughter Melanie James has been missing for eight years. She said several investigators have been assigned to her daughter's case. From the start with the first investigator, getting information was difficult.

"He was either out of office, at his son’s baseball game, on vacation or just didn’t take a phone call," Mailman said. "And then he gave the case to another guy who I never met. And we got like a paragraph. Eight years and it's just the same report from the very first investigator. They just repeat it, repeat it, repeat it."

The body of Shanna Nez’s brother, Jevon Deschennie, was found in a canal in Shiprock last November 12, after he was detained by Shiprock police on October 25.

"Up to this  day we haven’t gotten answers about  what happened to my brother. Was he still in handcuffs? We don’t know. We are hoping that this here today will push those authorities to give us those answers now. We want answers now, we want justice," Nez said.

Lawmakers in Santa Fe introduced legislation to address the issues around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives again this year. Senate Bill 13 establishes a “Missing in New Mexico” day of remembrance that would allow families to meet with investigators. The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate on Jan. 28 and must make its way through the House before heading to the governor’s desk for signature.

A second measure, Senate Bill 12, would create a missing Indigenous persons specialist position within the office of the New MexicoAttorney General, and build out an online hub for information about these cases, along with a support network. The bill is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kara Plummer from Red Rock New Mexico lost her grandmother to homicide.

She said establishing an annual day of remembrance is a start, but Indigenous families are dealing with decades of trauma from stereotypes and racism.

"A lot of police officers when they hear that a Native man or a Native woman goes missing, the first question is, 'Oh, was she drunk?' that shouldn't matter, regardless if they were intoxicated or not, like, this person is a human. If we think about the Gabby Petito case, you know, she went missing and as a white person, everyone was all over it, you know, and we just want the same for not just Indigenous communities, but people of color, you know, there's Black communities that are going missing and the same thing," Plummer said.

Mailman said she supports any legislation that helps families, and that she hasn’t given up hope to find her daughter even after eight years.

"Yeah, I just want Melanie to know that I love her and I hold her in my heart that she's still alive and then we'll find her one day. I will find her, she needs to know that I have to find her and I'm not gonna give up on her."

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.
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