Indigenous people in Colorado push for better tracking of missing and murdered relatives

Karmayne Toney meticulously pressed a custom-made design onto 100 T-shirts for 14 hours the day before she set up her booth at the American Indian Festival in Adams County last month.

The images depicted an Indigenous woman’s face, outlined in black over the white shirts, with a red handprint over the mouth to signify how the women had been silenced, the red color representing blood.

“It felt personal to me and it felt like I needed to bring awareness to the cause,” Toney said.

Toney, who is from the Navajo Tribe, was selling the shirts as a conversation starter, saying she wanted to bring attention to the crisis of MMIW – missing and murdered Indigenous women (or relatives). The 33-year-old Littleton woman who has a 13-year-old daughter said one of her aunts, then 36, was killed in 2000 in Shiprock, New Mexico. So was Toney’s father’s cousin’s daughter in 2016. She had lived down the road from Toney’s family on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock and was only 11 years old when she was killed.

Native activists across the country have been working to shed light on a crisis that has disproportionately affected their communities, but has not received the same news coverage as deaths of white women.

The message was renewed recently after the death of Gabby Petito. Colorado Indigenous advocates including Renée Millard-Chacon have said media rightly covered Petito’s disappearance and killing, but add that their communities should not be forgotten and the violence they face should be addressed.

The issue is further complicated by limitations on tribal nations from prosecuting people who are not members, and Millard-Chacon said she worries about cases that get lost across jurisdictions because of unreliable national and state data.

It’s hard enough for most communities to get resources to help find missing people or to protect them from future violence, said Millard-Chacon, who is of Diné/Azteca descent, and one of the founders of Womxn from the Mountain. “So when you apply that to Indigenous communities, whether it’s rural or urban, there are so many state and federal loopholes. There are so many instances of systemic violence and so many issues of disparity, even cultural insensitivity, trauma insensitivity from our own, those that are supposed to protect us,” she said.

A few states including Wyoming and Minnesota have commissioned task forces to collect more accurate information and study the gaps in data that researchers have found across the country. In Colorado, grassroots organizations such as Womxn from the Mountain are advocating for better tracking of missing and murdered Indigenous people at the local and state levels in the hopes of creating a more reliable database to understand the scope of the problem.

Millard-Chacon and cofounder Micaela Iron Shell-Dominguez, who have their own stories of violence against them and relatives who went missing or were found killed, started the nonprofit in 2018 to provide an inclusive healing space with resources for Native families but have since added advocacy about the problems facing Indigenous communities and reforms needed to help prevent continued violence. They also help with search and rescue efforts and push for better documentation of Native people at all levels of government. That way, they can continue their work to show disparities in their communities, Millard-Chacon said.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has 12 active missing Indigenous person cases listed in the agency’s database, according to spokesperson Susan Medina, but Native groups believe the number of people still missing is much higher. The number of how many active cases of Native killings being investigated was not available.

“…Colorado has a really hard time understanding that our communities even exist, much less to protect us,” Millard-Chacon said.

Colorado has two-federally recognized Native American Tribes, but Indigenous people from more than 200 tribal nations live in the state, according to History Colorado. In 2020, about 3.6% of Colorado’s population identified as American Indian or Alaska Native and 1.3% as only American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationally, homicide was the third-leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women ages 10-24 and fifth for those 24-34 in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Native women on some reservations are 10 times more likely to be killed than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. American Indian and Alaska Native women also were 1.7 times more likely to have experienced violence in the past year than white women, according to 2016 data from the National Institute of Justice.

Last year, former President Donald Trump signed the the Not Invisible Act into law, creating a commission that would make recommendations to the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Interior on ways to reduce violent crimes against Indigenous people. He also signed Savanna’s Act — named after 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine- Greywind, a citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota who was killed while pregnant in August 2017 — which aims to revise law enforcement protocols on responses to missing and murdered Native Americans.

This year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the creation of the Indigenous Missing and Murdered Unit.

In Colorado, the state Commission of Indian Affairs falls under the Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera’s office, and in a statement, governor’s office spokesperson Victoria Graham wrote that the administration is committed to partnering with communities, tribes and local governments to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives.

“Indigenous women and relatives are murdered or go missing at a higher rate than any group in the United States and the true number of MMIR is unknown,” Graham said. “Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) staff will work with state agencies to identify barriers, how to address these barriers, and how to increase collaboration across jurisdictions.”

In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute released a report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across the country, acknowledging the difficulty in obtaining accurate data, and listed Denver among the top cities that had more cases than were in law enforcement records.

“The National Crime Information Center reports that, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases,” the report stated.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation director met with state and community leaders in August to discuss what can be done in relation to the missing persons cases, and Medina said the agency is researching best practices on the issue from other states such as Montana. CBI is also working with local law enforcement agencies to learn how they input data into the state system and to ensure race is accurately depicted, and with community groups to hear their perspectives and provide access to resources.

“Our approach is missing persons in its entirety,” Medina said of CBI’s missing persons unit. “And certainly missing Indigenous (people) falls into that, and we’re willing to step up to the table and help out in any way we can to address that.”

Iron Shell-Dominguez of Lakota, Navajo, Apache and Chicana heritage and one of the founders of Womxn from the Mountain, lives in Denver, but said she would go back to her family’s reservation in Rosebud, South Dakota, and see the poor conditions that people were living in. Ever since she was a young girl, she wanted to create a space where Native women and youth could feel uplifted and access basic necessities. Her organization also serves Natives who identify as two-spirited and others who identify as women.

“I also am a huge advocate of reminding folks that we as Indigenous or as Native American people, that we’re still here,” Iron Shell-Dominguez said. “And I feel that until we are fully seen in our society and in everyday life, we will not be able to make the bigger changes needed. And if we continue to remain invisible, it’s much easier for our society to look past our real issues we face every day, and our concerns within the community.”

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