June 29, 2023

Not Invisible Act commission stops in Albuquerque to hear testimony on missing and murdered Indigenous individuals

These chairs represent four missing and murdered Indigenous individuals during the Not Invisible Act commission hearing to gather information on how the federal government can improve its response.

Susan Dunlap

The Not Invisible Act commission is hearing testimony this week in Albuquerque to gather information about missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives.

The commission’s listening session in Albuquerque, which runs through Friday, is one of several hearings nationwide which started in Tulsa in April and will conclude in Billings in July to hear about state-wide problems and efforts regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives.  

The commission will use the information gathered during the listening tour to compile a report in October to recommend how the government can better respond to the epidemic. The report will go to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, Congress and other federal partners.

The Not Invisible Act, sponsored by former U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, who represented New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District and now serves as secretary of the Interior, became law in 2019 and increased coordination to identify and combat violent crime within Native land and against Native individuals. Haaland drafted the bill in response to the missing and murdered Indigenous people and human trafficking problem. Haaland’s U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice are working to implement the law.

The law established the Not Invisible Act Commission as a cross jurisdictional advisory committee. It includes both federal and nonfederal members, including survivors and family members of murdered and missing Indigenous people.

Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Diné and a Navajo Council member, is a nonfederal member of the commission and attended the listening session on Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza in Albuquerque.

Kanazbah Crotty told NM Political Report that there needs to be more accountability. She mentioned Operation Rainbow Bridge, taking place this summer in Phoenix. The state of Arizona discovered fraudulent rehabilitation centers that have preyed upon low income or housing unstable Indigenous individuals, mostly Navajo, and placed them in locations purporting to treat substance abuse disorders in Phoenix since 2019. But while the families filed missing persons reports, the fraudulent centers either provided no treatment or some treatment to the individuals housed in their care while billing Arizona’s Medicaid program.

Kanazbah Crotty said 30 individuals from Gallup were found in Phoenix through these fraudulent centers. She said she is concerned about those individuals and what sort of coordinated response might develop to help them.

The two panels on Wednesday discussed some practical issues around law enforcement and its response to what many call an epidemic and public health crisis. The first panel, which included a member of the New Mexico State Police, talked about recruitment and retention issues of police, particularly for tribal officers. Major Troy Velasquez, with the New Mexico State Police training and recruiting bureau, said he grew up in Laguna Pueblo and that he started out as a tribal police officer.

He said that many tribal officers leave the tribal force because they receive better training, opportunities for promotion and advancement that do not exist for tribal police. Velasquez said that in his current job, he finds the best tribal police officers and recruits them for the state police force.

Velasquez said the tribes are “losing out” but also said that as state police officers, members of tribes and pueblos often return to the districts that contain their ancestral land. The state police then relies on the state officers who are members of a tribe or pueblo to take those calls because the state officers know the tribal customs and courtesies.

But, Velasquez said, “we have to figure out ways to keep young tribal police officers there, have incentives for housing, better pay.”

“I talk to these young officers. The number one thing they say is ‘we’re not getting the training.’ ‘There’s nowhere for me to live. I have to travel miles to work in tribes,’” he said.

Kanazbah Crotty told NM Political Report that when she talked to community members about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives problem prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she heard that there was a lot of victim blaming and shaming and misinformation from law enforcement about who was missing. She said efforts need to be made to regain the trust of the families impacted and bring in advocates to provide support and referrals.

The second panel, which included members of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations based in New Mexico, talked largely about FBI responses to murdered and missing Indigenous women and relatives.

The second panel also included Democratic state Senators Shannon Pinto of Gallup, and Linda Lopez of Albuquerque. Pinto is Diné (Navajo). Lopez sits on the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force, as does Melody Delmar, special projects coordinator and constituent services liaison for New Mexico Indian Affairs Department. Delmar also participated on the panel.

Sherrie Catanach (Pojoaque), director of communications for NMIAD, said through email that the “hearings and public comment are pivotal in bringing equity to the voices of our MMIWR families, and what recommendations we can ask of the Commission to improve the Federal response to the immediate and real time needs of all our relatives affected.”

The New Mexico Legislature enacted HB 278, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, primarily sponsored by Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, which established the New Mexico MMIWR Task Force.

Raul Bujanda, FBI special agent in charge, said that serving New Mexico to respond to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives crisis as an FBI agent is “difficult for anyone’s well being,” and that the agents will not see this type of work “anywhere else in the country.”

He said that FBI agents who agree to a three or five-year rotation in Indian country can then go to their place of choice. 

Kanazbah Crotty, who is also on the New Mexico Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force, told NM Political Report that she wants to learn more about what it means for an FBI agent who is only in New Mexico for three years and waiting for their next assignment.

“If you’re dealing with different agents, you know more about the case than the agent giving the update. You know you’re not getting the response that could be given if we were having a larger conversation,” she said.

Delmar said the state is involved in conversations about jurisdictional issues and the possibility of building an alert system.

Lopez said the problems “fall on the lap of those elected to fund line items in the budget and not have different entities that have to pinch here and there.”

“The federal government needs to own up. There’s a duty between the federal government and the reservations to make sure we’re working with and providing funding to adequately address this in New Mexico and around the country,” Lopez said.

Pinto said a person in her community went missing and while community members knew something was wrong, they could not file a report because they weren’t family.

“You shouldn’t have that policy, if you’re not family, you can’t file a report,” Pinto said.

Kanazbah Crotty said that what she will recommend, after listening to the two panel discussions in Albuquerque on Wednesday is for the commission to take a deeper dive into more of the stories and for the commission to hear more from family members. She said there are “gaps in wrap around services.”

“There are still some serious challenges when it comes to data. We can’t make data driven decisions,” she said.

She said the entities on the front lines of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives crisis need “not just discretionary funding or one or two year funding.”

“They need long term funding from federal appropriations. And the state legislature needs to understand what next steps there are and the continued investment the state needs to make,” she said.

The hearings will continue Thursday and Friday, but will be closed to the press due to the sensitivity of victims and families’ testimony, which the commission will hear. On Saturday the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center Courtyard in Albuquerque to tell personal stories and give a call to action.