Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples study committee produces list of recommendations

By: - December 23, 2022 1:38 pm

Victoria Gonzales holds a photo of her late son Adrian Shan Gonzales (right) standing next to her youngest son. Gonzales shared her story about her son’s slaying with the House Ad Hoc Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples on Dec. 19, 2022. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

After hearing from Indigenous community members about how the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis has impacted them, the Arizona House Ad Hoc Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples outlined new recommendations for addressing the issue.

“Missing and murdered Indigenous peoples is an issue that has touched many lives,” said Committee Chair and state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine. “The generational traumas that come along with missing and murdered Indigenous people are the ones that we’ve carried from the time of colonization to the current day, and they are far too common.

“Our committee is tasked with looking into the systems and structures that are failing our people and to help find and ease the gaps that enable cases to go cold,” she added. 

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The committee also looks into the wraparound services and how systems can be improved to better serve victims and communities, such as behavioral health or victim advocacy, and looks into the gaps in prosecutions.

For the past three months, members of the Arizona Study Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples hosted five hearings for Indigenous communities to share their stories and experiences with MMIP.  

Pascua Yaqui Tribe’s Attorney General Alfred Urbina served on the committee for the second time, after serving on the last committee in 2019. He said having a study committee focused on MMIP issues is rare, especially one that includes Indigenous people and tribal leadership.

“It’s historic,” he said, and he believes the committee can be a good framework for other states.

The committee hosted its final hearing at the state capitol on Dec. 15, when members shared a five-page list of recommendations they developed from these hearings.

“I’m excited to see the second report and all the follow-up that will happen afterward,” Urbina said. He looks forward to seeing the legislation that gets introduced from their findings, as well as seeing how that will benefit tribal communities.

Work of the study committee

The committee divided its recommendations into nine key areas: Legislative, administrative, Arizona victim compensation program, victim services, data improvement, resource allocation, training and education, collaborative and law enforcement. There are a total of 83 recommendations.

The first recommendation listed is from the previous recommendations released in 2020: to establish a permanent MMIP-focused state office led by Indigenous peoples that partners with urban Indian centers and all of Arizona’s 22 tribes. 

Jermaine said that the initial study committee’s work in 2019 and 2020 led to some incredible legislative advances, including a statewide missing children’s statute in 2021 and a protective orders bill in 2022. 

The missing child statute bill, House Bill 2098, was a direct result of the study committee learning that each law enforcement jurisdiction has different standards for reporting missing children. The 2021 law makes it mandatory for law enforcement agencies in Arizona to report missing, kidnapped, or runaway children.

The protective order bill, House Bill 2604, increases the duration of a protection order from one year to two years and extends the time of emergency protection to seven calendar days after issuance. The bill also removes barriers for victims in rural communities by granting them an emergency order over the phone if the court is closed. That law goes into effect on Sept. 24.

Other significant recommendations from the 2022 committee hearings include data collection, funding opportunities for tribes, including MMIP in the Arizona Crime Victim Compensation Program, and training law enforcement to ask victims if they are Native American and what their tribal affiliation is.

Some Indigenous people had never heard of the work the study committee did until this year. That was the case for Victoria Gonzales from the Salt River Indian Community. She shared her story with the committee in November and again at the final hearing on Dec. 15. 

“I had no idea this committee even existed on a local level,” she said. She’s happy to see that people are looking into the MMIP crisis. 

“A child lost is a child lost no matter what, but when your child is brutally murdered and taken from you, you’re not prepared for something like that,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales lost her son Adrian Shane Gonzales in March 2019. She told the committee that he was killed, and the perpetrators were put in jail. 

She shared her final pictures of her son with the committee, which showed him in a hospital bed after he was severely injured.

“The severity of what the trauma has caused me and my family needs to be out there,” Gonzales said on why she shared her son’s story. “Enough is enough. We need to do better.”

Gonzales said she wants people to know the severity of what’s happening in Indigenous communities and what’s happening to Indigenous people. 

“It’s not just missing and murdered Indigenous women and men and children from non-Natives,” she said. “Our own people are committing crimes within our communities, and nothing is being done about it.” 

New issue identified

Besides the newly documented recommendations, the study committee hearings over the last three months have raised awareness of a new concern building within Indigenous communities: unregulated sober living homes.

Several Indigenous community members have shared their concerns with committee members about non-Indigenous people traveling onto tribal land and recruiting tribal citizens to take them to sober living houses in the Phoenix area or other nearby cities. 

“Many of our tribal communities have been seeing a large rise in individuals going missing and later being found at drug and alcohol treatment centers,” Jermaine said. 

Paying people to bring patients into a treatment center is illegal under federal and Arizona law, she said. The cases that have been identified have been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for federal prosecution, she added, and they are exploring going after the licensing of these organizations under the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Sen. Theresa Hatathlie said that she has heard several stories about this happening on the Navajo Nation over the last few months. She’s heard from families that reported their son missing but eventually heard from him and found out he was picked up in front of a grocery store and taken to a rehab facility in the Phoenix area.

She’s also heard from families who reported they lost loved ones in these facilities or they were found after being released wandering the streets with no identification, cell phone, or money to help them get home.

“These are some of the scenarios,” Hatathlie said. She added that they are working with policy advisors to locate laws and the best reporting processes to ensure oversight from the Department of Health. 

Gila River Indian Community Lt. Gov. Monica Antone shared her appreciation for Hatathlie’s efforts in the sober living homes. She said it’s a relief to know that some work is being done about it because she has heard of incidents within her community. 

“My community’s been plagued with that,” she said. “Many of our community members come to me personally, letting me know that they have concerns not only for our members but other tribal members that are being ushered into these homes.”

Antone said when the committee talks about missing and murdered Indigenous people, missing is the first part of the issue, and tribal members are going missing in these sober living homes. 

Committee work to continue

The study committee concluded its efforts for 2022 in December, and Jermaine will not be returning as chair of the committee because she is not returning to the legislature in 2023. Jermaine passed the chair to Hatathlie during the final meeting, and Hatathlie will move forward with the committee in the future.

During the final hearing at the Capitol, some of the committee members shared their experiences working with the committee.

Committee Vice-Chair and Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren opened up during the conclusion of the meeting and talked about how she first heard about the missing and murdered Indigenous women in college. But, it was an issue she didn’t fully understand. 

Blackwater-Nygren said she heard the stories and saw the data from the First Nations communities in Canada that discussed how Indigenous women went missing and were murdered by non-Indigenous men. 

“I felt like that wasn’t the issue for myself personally that I knew,” she said.

Blackwater-Nygren said that she was aware of the young women being murdered back on the  Navajo Nation while she was in college. Some of them were women she went to high school with, but she said non-Native men weren’t murdering them. 

“They were being murdered by our own Native men,” Blackwater-Nygren said. She feels that side of the story was not being captured in the national narrative surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. 

“My work on this committee, I feel like, has contributed to rectifying that narrative that MMIP is not just an issue that is related to Native women being murdered by non-Native men,” she said. “It’s a multifaceted, very complex issue.”

Blackwater-Nygren will not return to the committee because she will not return to the Arizona State Legislature in 2023.

Navajo Community Advocate Debbie Nez-Manuel has been involved with the committee since the bill was introduced in 2019. She took some time to talk about how the study committee impacted her life. 

“The past three years have been very important, and I do not take this work lightly,” Nez-Manuel said. “I’m very grateful for every single person in this body, every thought, [every] conversation that we’ve had to protect the lives and the ways of living for our people is so important.”

Nez-Manuel has been an active advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people for many years, but her journey started with her mother. Nez-Manuel’s mother went missing in 1979 while visiting a nearby border town from the Navajo Nation. Her body was found that same year.

Nez-Manuel said living without her mother has given her an understanding of what it’s like to deal with kinship care, institutional care, and child protective services. That experience is what drove her to continue advocating every day.

“Understanding that all of these things are what survivors deal with is something that I had to face all of my life,” she said. 

Nez-Manuel took time to thank Jermaine and former leaders for all their work raising awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. 

“This work is impacting so many people,” she said. 

For instance, Nez-Manuel said her daughters often remind her to call them and check in because she travels frequently. 

They know what happened to their grandma, Nez-Manuel said, and they have these conversations in their household because of the committee’s efforts.

“These are the conversations that are so vital to women’s safety, the safety of people, especially our Indigenous communities, no matter if they start with violence or addictions or drugs,” Nez-Manuel said.

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***CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to include the correct spelling of Sen. Theresa Hatathlie’s name. 

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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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