Hundreds of Native American families nationwide have no answers as to what happened to their daughters, sisters, mothers, and aunts who were murdered or went missing. It’s an epidemic that impacts Utahns, both in urban cities and on the reservation, leaving us asking the question, ‘What makes it so difficult to provide justice to these families?’
Living without closure
February 4th was a momentous day on Utah’s Capitol Hill for the Native American community, as they celebrated the first piece of legislation, a bill sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, to designate May 5th as ‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and LGBT+ Awareness Day.’
In the crowd, Denae Shanidiin was visibly hopeful but still concerned. She bears decades of pain and trauma and knows there’s a lot more that needs to be done to even brush the surface of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic.
To understand where the pain and trauma came from, Shanidiin’s mother, Sandra Lee escorted ABC4 News down to Fort Defiance, Ariz. in the Navajo Nation reservation, where she was born and raised.
Lee’s older sister, Priscilla was murdered in January 1984. She recalls Priscilla was at her home with her 3-month old baby, Samantha, and their mom while the rest of their family was at a local basketball game. A man, unfamiliar to both of them, shut off their electricity and ambushed both of them with a gun.
After her mom was shot, she hid baby Samantha before Priscilla was shot.
“My mom recalls my sister begging this man saying, ‘I have money in the house. What is it that you want?’,” said Lee. The attacker never answered.
With no way to call for help, the gunman drove off with Priscilla in her mom’s car and left her mom to die. The rest of their family, approximately a mile away, was unaware of what happened until Lee urged her sister and her boyfriend to check up on them.
“I had the deep sense that there was really something wrong,” she said.
Her family found baby Samantha unharmed, due to the fact that she never cried during the attack. Lee’s mother survived, but Priscilla didn’t.
Lee took ABC4 News back to the site where Priscilla’s body was found in Fort Defiance, Ariz. Thirty-five years later, she’s still in disbelief that someone could do something so horrific to her sister.
“The man chased her, followed and looked for her. You can see a scuffle happen in the snow. You could see where she would escape again, and him wandering to search for her,” said Lee.
Footprints and hand marks indicated to investigators Priscilla escaped at least three times before her murderer shot her one last time. They found her body early in the morning the next day. Her mother believes the man who killed her was not of Native American descent.
Her case was never solved by FBI investigators, leaving the Lee without any closure for the last three decades. She believes the agent assigned to her sister’s case had no urgency or sincerity in the investigation.
“It’s frustrating to know now that three months or so after all of this happened, my father received a phone call from the hospital in Albuquerque saying, ‘We’ve repeatedly called this agent, Mr. Moffitt to come pick up evidence, but he never came,’” said Lee.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported rates of violence on reservations can be up to 10 times higher the national average.
Yolanda Francisco-Nez, Executive Director of Restoring Ancestral Winds, said there is a shortage of law enforcement officers on the reservation, leading to delayed response times.
“The lack of technology is a big factor. For instance, calling 911 and having an officer respond to a crime may take hours. They may not show up until the next day,” she said. “Meanwhile, the perpetrator’s gone. Some family members will take the law into their own hands and deal with it themselves.”
The National Crime Information Center reported that in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, through the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.
“The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice have not prosecuted a large number of cases, most cases happening on the Navajo Nation. There’s something happening there,” said Francisco-Nez.
Experts said reasons for the lack of quality data include underrreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and Native American communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and a lack of substantive relationships journalists and Native American communities.
“Indigenous people have a hard time trusting law enforcement in general. We don’t receive the attention and care because it goes back to this colonial attitude about Native Americans as if we were subhuman,” said Lee. “A lot of the times, our community are having to deal with acts of violence on their own so many of them go unreported.”
Lee said tribal courts are also limited in the sense that they cannot prosecute someone who is non-Native.
“A non-indigenous person can go on to reservations, murder somebody, leave and get away with it,” said Shanidiin.
But the epidemic also impacts Native American women in urban cities, where 71 percent of them reside.
“They may be trafficked. They may be brought to the city by someone who they thought had their best interests and then was sold to sex trafficking,” said Francisco-Nez.
According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, Salt Lake City ranks as the 9th highest city in the nation for MMIW cases. Utah ranks as the 8th highest state.
However, researchers said, “Due to Urban Indian Health Institute’s limited resources and the poor data collection by numerous cities, the 506 cases identified in this report are likely an undercount of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in urban areas.”
That’s why advocates like Francisco-Nez said it’s time for state officials to create a database and start responding to the epidemic.
“We’d like to see the State of Utah form a task force to begin looking at why are these numbers so high? Why is Salt Lake City one of the top 10 cities? Why is the state of Utah one of the top 10 states?” said Francisco-Nez.
Poor data collection and misclassification
In a statement released by the Utah Department of Public Safety said the data given to the Urban Indian Health Institute by the Salt Lake City Police Department was not completely accurate.
“It was explained that the information released by SLCPD was accurate information in the fact that all reported women were indigenous. However, those reported were not all victims of missing or murdered women cases,” the statement said.
It goes on to say that only two of the originally reported 24 victims were actually of homicide and in both cases, both the offenders were apprehended and tried in court. It said the remaining 22 were “witnesses of crimes, attended deaths, or unattended deaths where foul play was ruled out.”
They said, “without downplaying the seriousness of this demoralizing and degrading issues […], we are confident that Salt Lake City would have remained unranked and amongst or below many other cities in this study.”
SLCPD Det. Greg Wilking said despite the clarification of their findings, he agrees more need to be done at the state and national level to properly respond to this epidemic.
FBI’s role in Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Sandra Yi Barker, Public Affairs Specialist said the FBI does not conduct on-camera interviews regarding this subject matter but answered questions submitted by ABC4 News via e-mail.
Barker explained, “In order for the FBI to obtain federal criminal jurisdiction, three things must be satisfied – predication of a criminal act for which the FBI has jurisdiction, commission on a reservation where FBI has jurisdiction, and the subject, victim, or both must be American Indian or Alaska Native.”
Currently, the FBI reports there are more than 140 full-time special agents and more than 40 victim specialists working on Indian Country investigations.
The number of missing Native American females entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) during 2016 was 5,711. For comparison – in 2017, there were 5,646 missing Native American females entered, and so far in 2018 up to June 30th, there have been 2,758 missing Native American females entered. The NCIC does not maintain statistics on individuals reported as “murdered.”
Barker said one struggle the FBI has is it needs predication of a crime before they can become involved. For instance, the FBI typically does not work missing adult cases.
“Many on the reservations are ‘missing’ voluntarily or missing for some other non-criminal reason (i.e. suicide),” said Barker. “The FBI works every case we get, of course, regardless of age, race, gender, etc.”
Fueling the conversation
With the MMIW movement taking off, Lee and Shanidiin feel some comfort in seeing change begin, but they still grapple with the dilemma of where they should reopen Priscilla’s case.
“It’s kind of hard when, to consider reopening all these old wounds and this pain my family feels, this anger. It’s taken us a long time to get over those things,” said Lee.
Priscilla’s daughter, Samantha, now 34 years old, can only remember her mother through her stories and beautiful portraits. Shanidiin never had the chance to meet her aunt, but that doesn’t mean it eases the pain of losing her.
“You know, I look at pictures of her and my family always talked about her, and how beautiful she was. My oldest sister was named after her. I can feel her,” said Shanidiin tearfully.
But whether or not they ever find closure, the mother-daughter duo said they won’t stop fueling the conversation until they start seeing justice being served.
“I will not go missing. I will not be murdered,” said Shanidiin. “I need people to take real action.”
When asked what they believe the first step in tackling this epidemic is, they said raising awareness and sparking the conversation about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
“When people think about Native people, automatically they think about issues like Bears Ears, like natural resources, which is often where the attention goes,” said Francisco-Nez. “Not that it’s not important but if we’re going to talk about the earth, the sky, and the air, the water, we should talk about the spirit of the individual and the well-being of that individual.”