BIA launches new website spotlighting Missing and Murdered Indigenous people cases

By: - December 16, 2021 11:35 am

Duane Garvais-Lawrence paints the name of a missing Indigenous woman on his arm before starting a run around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was the last stop on a cross-country trip to raise awareness of the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Photo by Diannie Chavez | Cronkite News

It’s been six months since Ella Mae Begay went missing near her home in Tòłikan (Sweetwater), in northeastern Arizona, and her family has done everything in their power to raise awareness on the case through on-the-ground search parties, social media campaigns, memorial walks and motorcycle runs.

“I really appreciate how everybody’s come together so far, with information and resources,” Seraphine Warren, Begay’s niece, said. 

Still, though, there hasn’t been any real movement on her aunt’s case with federal and tribal investigators. 

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Begay, 62, was reported missing to the Navajo Nation Police Department on June 15. She is 5 feet, 1 inch tall, has a slender build with brown eyes, and weighs around 110 to 120 pounds.

Her 2005 Silver F-150 Ford truck, Arizona license plate AFE7101, was seen leaving her residence in the early morning hours of June 15. No one could say what she was wearing at the time of her disappearance.

The lack of information about what happened to Begay is why Warren is happy her aunt’s case has been added to the new Bureau of Indian Affairs website dedicated to solving missing and murdered cases in Indian Country.

Missing weaver’s work gives family and searchers some hope

“It’s a positive feeling that I get when my aunt is added to those kinds of things,” she said, because it is one more outlet for people to get and share information on her aunt’s case. 

“I have a little more hope that we’re going to get justice and also get somebody to start talking,” Warren added.

The new website provides attention to unresolved cases involving Indigenous people that the BIA, Office of Justice Services, Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) is working on.

“The Missing and Murdered Indigenous peoples crisis has plagued Indian Country for too long, with cases often going unsolved and unaddressed,” Bryan Newland, a BIA assistant secretary said in a press release announcing the website’s launch. “This new website represents a new tool in the effort to keep communities safe and provide closure for families.”

There is no centralized database among the thousands of federal, state and tribal entities in the U.S., but there are a few resources that offer limited data on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

NamUS published a report in August finding that there are 734 unresolved missing Indigenous people’s cases from 36 states. Arizona’s 55 cases were the thirst-most.

And the FBI publishes a roundup every year that highlights the total number of missing persons and unidentified person cases reported.

In 2020, over 9,500 cases involving Indigenous people were reported, and nearly 1,500 were still active cases at the end of 2020.

For murder rates among Indigenous peoples, the Interior Department reported that 2,700 cases of murder and non-negligent homicide offenses have been reported to the federal government’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

In some tribal communities, women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice.

In 2017, homicide was reported as the fourth-leading cause of death among Indigenous women between the ages of 1 and 19 years and the sixth-leading cause of death for ages 20 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a report from the National Institute of Justice, 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, compared to 71% of white women.

The new BIA website will add to the limited resources available on missing and murdered Indigenous people in the United States.

“This is an important new resource that connects those who might have case information with the investigating agency and agent — speeding feedback to address the legitimate concerns of our Native communities,” Jason O’Neal, deputy bureau director of the BIA’s Justice Services, said in the news release.

The website features 16 missing and murdered Indigenous peoples cases. The profiles have the victim’s picture, name, investigating agency and status of the case. They can be shared by the public, and viewers can submit tips on the case.

BIA offers rewards of up to $5,000 for tips submitted through the website if they help in the detection or investigation of an offense committed in Indian Country or in the arrest of an offender. 

The website is also connected to the National Missing and Unidentified Person’s System and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Indian Country Case website, according to the press release, and it aims to enhance the Department of Interior’s Missing and Murdered Unit’s ability to connect cases that involve Indigenous people.

The website comes a month after President Joe Biden signed an executive order addressing violence against Indigenous communities.

The executive order is titled “Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People.”

It directs the departments of Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to create a strategy that will improve the public safety and justice for Native Americans, as well as address the crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous peoples.

Biden’s order is one more national push to bring attention to the crisis involving missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

In 2019, the Justice Department announced the agency’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative and President Donald Trump launched a task force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives known as Operation Lady Justice.

In April, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland launched the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services to provide leadership and direction for cross-departmental and interagency work involving missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Right now, Warren said a lot of her family’s efforts are focused on searching and awareness. She said they have been working with a drone operator to map out areas that need to be searched. 

Warren said they haven’t been able to even get halfway through the operator’s suggested areas because of the lack of volunteers for the search parties.

‘We’re not getting anywhere with it,” she said, but they’re going to keep trying.

The family does get tips on occasion, which they forward to the lead investigators of Begay’s case, but Warren said they’re still waiting to see what they do with it. 

“The thing that sucks about this is still just trying to hope that she is OK,” Warren said. But the more months that pass by, the more she has accepted that they may only find Begay’s remains.

Warren had hoped that as soon as her aunt went missing they would have found her right away, but now, she said it feels like she’s been missing for years rather than six months.

“I can’t believe it’s gone on this long, but it does feel like years, not months,” she said, adding she didn’t know it would be this hard.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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