In the wee hours of June 15, 2021, Ella Mae Begay vanished from her home on the Navajo Nation, near Sweetwater, Arizona. She was 62 years old. Within days of Begay’s disappearance, a person of interest was named in the case and local search parties were scouring the roadsides and arroyos near Sweetwater. But more than a year into an investigation by Navajo law enforcement and the FBI, no arrests have been made. Begay still has not been found.
The 2022 federal reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has been hailed as good news, but there are problems it doesn’t solve. President Joe Biden signed VAWA reauthorization earlier this spring. The last time U.S. Congress reauthorized it was in 2013. It is supposed to be reauthorized every five years. It provides millions of dollars to every state to help fund services to victims of gender-based violence.
Rose Yazzie last spoke to her daughter, Ranelle Rose Bennett, in June of last year. They were talking about a birthday party for Bennett’s daughter, Yazzie’s granddaughter.
Yazzie recalls that her daughter hugged her for longer than usual. Looking back, she wonders if she missed the signs that something was wrong. She hasn’t seen or heard from her daughter since, and Yazzie is frustrated with the lack of attention the police have given the case.
Bennett, Diné, is one of an unknown number of missing or murdered Indigenous people in New Mexico whose case remains unsolved.
Yazzie attended a rally on Thursday in Farmington to raise awareness about the number of Native Americans who are missing or murdered. This rally took place on the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and on what would have been Zachariah Juwaun Shorty’s 25th birthday.
First, she’s in the process of requesting that the Albuquerque Police Department reopen the case involving her daughter Shawna’s death. “I feel relief that something is getting done, you know; we’re wanting to still look for justice, answers,” she said. Second, Toya (Jemez) was in attendance for the signing of legislation that will be a first step to addressing issues of missing and murdered Indigenous people in New Mexico.
“Today’s the day that we are going to make history,” she said. “We’ve been searching for this moment, to get through with what we need, we deserve it. And we’re gonna actually see it and observe it for ourselves.
Pepita Redhair’s family hasn’t seen her since March 2020, when she left her mother’s home in Crownpoint on the Navajo Nation to visit her boyfriend in Albuquerque. Her older sister, Shelda Livingston, 41, said their mother has left Redhair’s room in Crownpoint untouched, awaiting the skateboard-loving 29-year-old’s return. She said Redhair “was always happy — a light of the family.” Livingston, who spoke at a rally for missing and slain Indigenous women and relatives at the Santa Fe Plaza on Friday morning, said in an interview the pandemic delayed action on her sister’s case by Albuquerque police. It took months for police to start investigating and interviewing, she said, and the case remains open.
The Department of Justice held its first task force meeting on murdered and missing American Indians and Alaska Natives with much fanfare Wednesday in Washington, D.C., but local leaders question whether the federal government’s efforts will be enough. President Donald Trump issued an executive order late last year establishing what he called “Operation Lady Justice,” an interagency group led by the U.S. Department of Justice, that would “aggressively” address the crisis of murdered and missing women and girls in Indigenous communities. Although no one knows for sure how many Indigenous women and children are murdered or go missing, the federal government estimates that 1.5 million Indigenous women and children experience violence, including sexual violence, in their lifetime. Just prior to Trump’s announcement, Secretary of the Interior William Barr told a group at the Flathead Reservation in Montana last year that the Department of Justice would commit $1.5 million to hire specialized coordinators to help improve law enforcement response to the problem. But Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland,an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, has previously said that the DOJ’s plan “falls short,” issued a critical statement to NM Political Report Thursday.
Eager for change, a new organization called the New Mexico Indigenous Women’s Resource Council symbolically tied a ribbon Saturday in Gallup to launch a group dedicated to advocacy and helping people who are marginalized within indigenous communities. The council’s board president, Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, Navajo-Modoc, said the group will focus on women and girls in indigenous communities who experience domestic violence, helping indigenous people who are LGBTQ, and working on causes such as missing and murdered indigenous women. Jim-Martin said the number of missing and murdered women and girls from indigenous communities is alarming. She said the problem is worse than the numbers officially reported. “We know we can say it’s happening every day,” Jim-Martin told NM Political Report.