Alibi V.28 No.42 • Oct 17-23, 2019 

News Interview

Ending the Silence

Investigating Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Lynn Trujillo
New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo
Eric Williams Photography

A recent report by the Urban Indian Health Institute examines, in depth, the continuing crisis concerning murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls throughout our nation.

Besides the state of Alaska, New Mexico is home to the largest population of Indigenous peoples in the United States. According to the document produced on this important subject, 71 percent of Native Americans live in urban settings. Further the report specifies that limited resources and poor reporting practices have most likely resulted in an undercount of the number of Indigenous women and girls who have been subjected to senseless violence and murder, both in this state and nationwide.

Clearly this situation is an emergency and the report is a just a beginning, looking into the dark statistics that define a cultural crisis deeply in need of government investigation and intervention.

The National Crime Information Center reported in 2016 that there were 5,712 reports of missing Native American women and girls, though the Department of Justice logged only 116 cases. Further, the authors of the report noted a nationwide data crisis surrounding the issue.

Thankfully, the State of New Mexico, under the leadership of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, has stepped in to this seeming miasma of maliciousness. Last week, the Governor completed making appointments to a task force tasked with determining the scope of the problem in New Mexico, identifying barriers to its solution and creating statewide partnerships to improve processes and investigations of cases where Indigenous women and girls have been taken from their communities and, in some cases, murdered.

Weekly Alibi met with the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department Cabinet Secretary Lynn Trujillo. She’ll be overseeing the development and deployment of the task force. We wanted to know more about the issue and Trujillo—on behalf of the progressive administration she serves—came up with substantive answers about a problem that haunts this state and can only be resolved with the application of science, conscience and community involvement from citizens and the state’s leadership class.

Weekly Alibi: For our readers who may not be familiar with this pressing issue, could you tell us about missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as about the resulting task force created to investigate the issue?

Lynn Trujillo: Sure. Thanks for having me here August. I really appreciate the opportunity. You know, this issue is not a new issue, despite the fact that the task force was recently appointed by the governor. This is an epidemic that has been happening for many, many years. It has not been covered in the media; it hasn’t been covered for a number of years. I think that it’s been covered only recently because of the efforts of activists. Also, our representatives in Congress, like Deb Haaland, has done much, she’s become a really strong advocate for this issue. This all has brought more public attention to this crisis that’s been plaguing us. Through the leadership of Michelle Lujan Grisham—and the state legislature too—House Bill 278 was passed this year.

So, the legislation was the actual tool that was used to create the task force?

Yes, it is. The creation of the task force came about after the release of the report by the Urban Indian Health Institute. In that report, as you know, it notes that, in New Mexico, there have been 78 missing or murdered Indigenous women or girls [reported since 2000]. The cases are here in Albuquerque. It’s the highest number of cases—by state—in the nation. The report effectively articulates the issue in a way that many citizens can understand and support.

Help me understand the issue: Women and girls of Native American heritage are going missing or being murdered. This is a phenomenon that isn’t necessarily taking place on the reservation, but rather in cities nearby, correct?

That’s right. The report states that Albuquerque had one of the highest incidences [of kidnapping and murder among Native women] across the nation. If you think about other urban population centers in New Mexico, I don’t know if there has been any data gathering. There are also Farmington and Gallup that have large populations of urban Native Americans—part of this task force’s mission is to travel around the state to meet and gather data about those sites as well.

How are you going to approach that part of the task?

Well, you know it’s an enormous part of the issue. I think that the diverse representation on the task force will help us with having those discussions. An intrinsic part of the task force is to determine the scope of this problem.

Who is on the task force?

Beata Tsosie is the representative from the Pueblos. Sharnen Velarde is the Jicarilla Nation representative, Bernalyn Via is the Mescalero Apache Tribe representative, First Lady Phefilia Nez represents the Navajo Nation, Matthew Strand represents the interests of statewide or local non-govenmental organizations, Linda Son-Stone is a representative from an Indigenous women’s organization that provides counseling services, Elizabeth Gonzales comes to us from the Office of the Medical Investigator and Becky Jo Johnson is an Indigenous survivor of violence.

What are some of the issues the task force faces in examining this critical issue?

There are jurisdictional issues, resource issues. Data is a big issue. This task force is going to collect data. But what’s alarming—and I think will become apparent as other reports and other states begin investigating this issue—is that we really don’t know what amount of data exists.

Does that have to do with the vast expanses, small tribal police forces and similar infrastructure problems unique to New Mexico?

There has been a lack of coordination. Jurisdiction becomes an issue when there isn’t a unified reporting system. If there were a unified system to report those missing persons into [that would help]. Access to existing reporting systems as well is problematic. There are some systems that are only accessible by local law enforcement, but may not be accessible to tribal authorities. For me, one of the scary things is that I don’t think we really know and understand the breadth and depth of this epidemic.

Is the problem worse than has been imagined or contemplated?

I think so. We may not even have all of the data. I think that this task force is a first step. It will allow us [the state] to unearth some of the issue by focusing on data and analyzing that data, But we’ll also look for what’s missing. It’s kind of like searching for something in the dark.

Is this the first opportunity the state has had to start a dialogue about an issue that involves the disappearance and death of Indigenous women from our state?

Yes, and I think that, for this administration, that’s very meaningful. Several other state have passed similar types of legislation in response to the MMIDWG crisis, other task forces have been assembled. What we hope to do is to learn from them, but also to build upon it.

What is at the root of this issue?

When I think about this, I don’t think about just this issue, but rather of the issues that affect communities in New Mexico. A lot of them are rural communities, but I think it has to do with creating a safe environment. We need to be safe, to value each other as human beings.

Do we need to revision the role people play in their communities so we can create safety, across the board, for all women and children?

I think so. I think that we’ll focus on data, jurisdictions and reporting but I think that ultimately, what it comes down to how we value and see each other as human beings, how we all count. We want people to thrive, to be happy. What that wellness and whole being looks like is really important to solving this issue. We could try to attempt to address this issue [solely] through data-reporting and jurisdiction, but I don’t know. If we look at this in a larger context, as human beings viewing life, having a safe environment, having a safe space to exist and thrive within, for all people, that’s where the answer lies.

What sort of education component is the task force developing to tell its story, to help revision and heal our communities?

There is always an opportunity for education, so that we learn from each other. That could come out of this task force. I think about issue like human trafficking. It’s not the same, but sometimes related to this issue. Educating about that is essential, too. People don’t understand that this is happening in our communities because they don’t know what it looks like. So this is a great education opportunity.

What’s the next step?

We have short time span to do this. The task force is required to do a lot. They have to look at looking at state resources for reporting and identifying MMIWG individuals. Also collaborating with tribal law agencies to determine the scope of the problems as well as barriers to its solution. We also want to create partnerships, a shared understanding that will improve investigative efforts. We have 23 sovereign Indigenous nations in this state, each with their own laws and jurisdiction, we are going to help coordinate their efforts. We’ll also be collaborating with the US Department of Justice on this, they’ll be a key partner. Our final report is due on the Governor’s desk by November 2020. I believe this is just the beginning.