89.9 FM Live From The University Of New Mexico
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Departments of Interior and Justice respond to report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People crisis

Indigenous families with loved ones who have disappeared or been murdered walk alongside a street in Farmington, New Mexico on May 5, 2023. Two years prior, President Joe Biden designated the day Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.
Bella Davis
New Mexico In Depth
Indigenous families with loved ones who have disappeared or been murdered walk alongside a street in Farmington, New Mexico on May 5, 2023. Two years prior, President Joe Biden designated the day Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.

Among Native American communities, people go missing and experience violence at disproportionately high rates.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) - the first Native cabinet secretary - has been working to implement the Not Invisible Act, which she helped pass as a Congresswoman in 2019.

A commission traveled round the country hearing testimony from survivors, advocates, law enforcement and tribal leaders. It released a list of recommendations last November, and now the Departments of Justice and Interior have responded.

Darlene Gomez is an attorney who represents families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. She welcomed the commission’s report.

“I think this report really took in everything that's going on in Indian country, from the federal level, to the state level, and to victims and how it impacts almost all of the communities,” she said.

She agrees with its conclusions that agencies meant to help victims and survivors of violence and trafficking should work more closely together.

“And it seems like that is going to be difficult because everybody operates under their own regulations.”

The report also recommends tracking domestic and sexual violence and that’s important said Jolene Holgate (Navajo), who works with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

“I think it's important that we're also uplifting these types of protections for survivors who are here with us today so that they don't become another statistic,” she said.

The Departments of Interior and Justice issued their response to the report’s recommendations in March.

U.S Attorney for New Mexico Alexander Uballez said his office has heard the voices of people who say communication about missing people is a huge problem.

“Tribal communities and survivors and their families will say, ‘we have never heard back, something happened, it really struck our community. And we just don't know what's going on. It's been months, years, whatever,’” he said.

Uballez said he coordinated with an FBI initiative to understand the scope of missing Native people within New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. He said now five assistant U.S. attorneys and five support staff serve different regions nationwide.

“If anyone there, from the leadership to the law enforcement has an issue that they need solved, they have a number that they can call and a person who is directly assigned to them, whose responsibility is to get to know their government, get to know their people, their culture and their needs, and respond to it.”

Uballez said the FBI project – called the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative – was created to help coordination.

“A lot of the things that we need to do to improve our response to both missing and murdered individuals exist in many different areas separately, but don't always work with each other, don’t always talk to each other,” he said.

And he adds his office is going back through cold cases.

“If there are additional steps that can be taken, we go back to law enforcement,” he said. “We say here are the things that we need to do to follow up on this case.”

Unfortunately, some of the cases may just need to be closed.

“But then our responsibility is giving some finality to those families giving them answers, saying we've tried everything that we can,” he said.

Some people are concerned about whether all the report's recommendations will be implemented. Activist Darlene Gomez says she would have liked to see specific timelines.

“Oftentimes we see the federal government putting out reports, and then we just never see what comes out of them because of all this red tape,” Gomez said.

She'd like to see a law mandating that agencies act on the report's recommendations. Also, she points out a lack of funding.

“We're talking about billions of dollars that have to be pumped into Indian country and pumped into this crisis of MMIP,” she said.

Uballez said he and his colleagues are pushing for that money.

“We as US attorneys, collectively across the Nation, decided that funding the MMIP program was a priority,” he said.

The report addresses what the federal government should do. But Melody Delmar from New Mexico’s Indian Affairs Department (Navajo) said the recommended changes are unlikely to happen quickly.

“We as a state have been working tirelessly and nonstop to ensure that we're responding to families,” she said. “We're responding to our community and ensuring that our voices are involved. We're not waiting on the federal response.”

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham created a state task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people, but then disbanded it last year.

Delmar said the task force did have an impact.

“And that laid the foundation in terms of community partnerships, from all levels, even from grassroot levels to working with families to inform the state response plan which is a comprehensive report to recommend to the state how we can respond,” she said.

New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez is leading the creation of a new task force and online portal to track cases.

However, some advocates, like Jolene Holgate, said it's the families of the missing who are doing much of the work to address the problem.

“So you have these communities who are empowering themselves to take on some of these responsibilities that the systems who have the power and the resources to be doing them. Yet you have these wonderful community volunteer groups that are doing it themselves,” she said.

She said it's those groups who can give families hope, and it's their models the federal and state agencies should look to.

Support for this coverage comes from the Thornburg Foundation.

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s a former Local News Fund Fellow. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.