Senate panel advances study committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples

By: - January 28, 2022 12:34 pm

More names are added to the MMIW Bike Run USA motor home at its last stop, in Washington, D.C., Friday.. Organizers said they chose to write the names in red to represent the blook of missing and murdered Indigenous women that “is on America’s conscience.” Photo by Diannie Chavez | Cronkite News

As a way to give people a sense of how important it is to continue looking into the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples, Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya shared a story with the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee on a missing person’s case she’s been working on just this week.

Imus-Nahsonhoya is a citizen of the Hopi Tribe and the supervisory victims specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She said their missing person team spent the last two days helping a family search for a missing Indigenous woman in the Phoenix area.

“Last night, we successfully found her alive and we were able to give her back to her family,” she said. “We were on the streets for two days and two nights asking (people) questions if they’ve seen this particular person.”

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Standing in front of the committee, Imus-Nahsonhoya said she is overwhelmed and exhausted because, in those two days, she heard at least 12 stories about men, boys and transgendered Indigenous people who are currently missing.

“This is also the information that we gather,” she said during her testimony in support of Senate Bill 1215, which would establish a study committee for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIP) in Arizona.

Imus-Nahsonhoya was part of the original study committee, which was created in 2019 to focus on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in the state.

While that committee heard families and survivors speak, it was not able to hear from those who had missing loved ones who were men, boys or transgendered.

“We would love to give these families and survivors an opportunity to share their stories,” Imus-Nahsonhoya said, and the work from the previous study committee shows that there is a need to continue to learn and understand the impacts of missing, murdered, and other violence affecting Indigenous people in Arizona.

“Senate Bill 1215 will expand the scope of our work to include all indigenous peoples, of any gender and any age,” said Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, who is a co-sponsor of the bill and will be leading it through the Arizona House. Jermaine also served as the chair of the MMIWG study committee.

The legislation would expand the scope of the MMIWG study committee, which was established to gather more information on how to reduce and end violence against Indigenous women and girls as well as find reasons why they are going missing or being murdered within the state of Arizona. It published its first report in 2020.

“Murders of Indigenous women and girls have been steadily increasing over the past 40 years,” the study committee’s report states. The study committee found that 160 murders of Indigenous females were recorded in Arizona from 1976 to 2018.

Working to understand the ‘crisis’

An Arizona Mirror analysis of the sparse available data on MMIWG cases found that more than 25% of murders involving Indigenous women in Arizona go unsolved. Additionally, the Murder Accountability Project found that one in three murders of Native Americans in Arizona goes unreported to the FBI.

A 2017 study from the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Arizona has the third-highest number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the country. That study reported a total of 506 known cases in 71 urban cities across the country and 54 cases were identified in Arizona, including 31 in Tucson. 

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, 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 MMIWG study committee was repealed in September of last year after it was not renewed in the 2021 Legislative session.

“The initial purpose of this study was to address the ongoing epidemic of violence committed against Native women and girls and to shine a light on the situation,” Sen. Victoria Steele said told the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday.

“We began by visiting various tribal communities and by meeting with the people who had been sharing stories with us,” the Tucson Democrat said because before then, the state didn’t know of the stories of those who had gone missing. “The stories we heard from the victims’ relatives are heartbreaking.”

The study committee gathered a lot of useful data, Steele added, but in the process, it was confirmed that it isn’t only Indigenous women and girls who are going missing or being murdered.

Jermaine said there were at least 80 families that came forward during their initial research and they were not able to speak with them because the scope of the original committee was only women and girls. With the passage of SB1215, Jermaine said they’ll be able to go back into communities and hear from those families.

“Researchers discovered that, above the I-40 corridor in Arizona, there is a significantly larger number of missing and murdered Indigenous men and boys,” she said.

It is suspected that there are many more missing and murdered Indigenous peoples cases that have not yet made it into any database, Steele said, and the committee is dedicated to getting a more accurate accounting of those cases, understanding the root causes of this violence, and searching out legislative solutions. 

Violence against Indigenous women in the U.S. is a crisis, but the extent of the problem remains unknown, according to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Nationally, 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 of last year 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. The last one, published in 2020, showed that more than 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.

During the committee meeting, Sen. Sonny Borrelli said that he understood the issue because he has a tribal community within his district, and one of the issues related to MMIP he’s noticed surrounds jurisdiction between federal, state, and tribal entities.

Steele told Borrelli, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, that is why they’re doing this committee. 

“The issue with jurisdiction is really problematic. It’s a very difficult thing to overcome,” she said, and figuring out what the problems are is a huge part of what the study committee aims to do.

Sen. Wendy Rogers asked Steele if the committee has considered the issues related to human trafficking because she’s heard stories from constituents within her district talk about how Indigenous women have been potentially taken by human traffickers.

“It’s just horrible,” Rogers said. 

Steele said one of the main purposes of the study committee is not only to figure out how many people are missing and murdered, but why it’s. 

“Is it because of trafficking? Is it because they’re runaways?” Steele said. She explained that their partnership with the ASU’s Research on Violence Victimization (ROVV) Lab and Indigenous advocates has really helped them address these questions.

Dr. Kate Fox, the director of ASU’s ROVV Lab, told senators that the lab has been working diligently with the old study committee since 2019 to “try and get a handle on what’s really been going on in terms of the missing and murder of Indigenous women and girls in the state.”

The ROVV lab specializes in research on reducing victimization among underserved populations in partnership with Indigenous and migrant communities, according to their website.

“Our team is already trained and we are already working in this area and with the state on this,” Fox said, and the team has highly specialized training and the lab has strict data security procedures set in place.

‘We want to go to every corner of the state’

Steele said Indigenous communities deserve to be safe, victims’ families deserve closure and perpetrators need to be held accountable.

“Our hearts break every time we hear of another case, another person who has gone missing or has been murdered,” Steele told the Arizona Mirror.

Expanding the committee’s scope will allow for a deeper understanding of both the problems and the potential solutions, Jermaine said.

“We want to go to every corner of the state,” she said. “We know that what is going on in one, one tribal community is not necessarily what’s going on in a different tribal community.”

One thing that Jermaine wants people to know is that this committee does not look into solving individual cases, but to change policy to keep people safe.

“We’re not law enforcement and we don’t have the ability to be law enforcement,” she said. “What we’re looking for is what are the root causes of people going missing and people turning up murdered and can we craft policy to address those root causes.”

“We’re trying to stop abductions and murders,” Jermaine said, and they’re trying to find out what is causing this violence within Tribal communities.

SB1215 passed through the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee unopposed, and Steele said she’s really happy that this issue is something that all of her colleagues can get behind. 

“I feel humbled,” she added.

Sen. Borrelli and Rogers requested that Steele keep them updated on the progress of the committee, even though they will not be directly involved with it.

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified state Sen. Victoria Steele as Veronica. 

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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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