Long Road Ahead

Data among challenges facing New Mexico’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force

One year after New Mexico lawmakers signed the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) Task Force into existence, the fledgling group has released an optimistic timeline to start tackling a major, longstanding crisis in the state.

Members of the task force, composed of government and tribal appointees, laid out their goals for 2020 on Friday to about 60 people: Put together and release a comprehensive report about MMIW in New Mexico and execute a massive data gathering plan.

Over the last year, the task force has met four times and devised an outline for what will be in the report as well as a plan to start collecting case local information.

It's a huge, difficult undertaking of undeniable importance—researchers say more Native American women and girls are abducted or killed in New Mexico than any other state.

However, legislators appropriated just $100,000 for the task force for two years in 2019's enabling legislation, with another $75,000 on the way pending final approval from the 2020 legislative session.

A little less than $200,000 for a long-term problem such as MMIW is "a good start," says Indian Affairs Department Senior Policy Analyst Stephanie Salazar. The department is leading the task force.

"I hope that as the work continues, the funding will continue to hopefully increase over time," Salazar tells SFR.

A chunk of that money will go to a possible partnership with the University of New Mexico's Native American Budget and Policy Institute, which has already collected some data on MMIW. The institute would assist the task force in the massive and complicated effort of compiling case data from across the state.

Legislators this year gave the task force a November deadline for presenting a report of findings to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration. The group plans to have enough information to begin analysis by July.

The kidnapping and murder of Indigenous women have affected tribes since colonizers came to North America. It only came into mainstream consciousness because of high profile cases including the brutal murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year old pregnant member of the Spirit Lake Tribe killed in 2017 in North Dakota.

In New Mexico, funding for an in-depth look into the MMIW issue has never been provided until now.

Information already compiled by the UNM institute illustrates the scope of the problem here.

According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, which tried to track missing and murdered indigenous women as far back as 1900, New Mexico has the highest number of such cases in the country. Of the 10 cities with the highest number of MMIW cases, two are in New Mexico: 37 in Albuquerque and 25 in Gallup.

Another grim figure that affects the entire region: 46% of Native American women have been victims of sexual assault or violence.

Better understanding the problem in New Mexico and collecting data about MMIW will require requests under state and federal public records laws to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal law enforcement and city and county police departments.

The Missing Persons Information Clearinghouse under the Department of Public Safety is a central database of every missing person in New Mexico. At Friday's meeting, Becky Johnson, a Navajo representative on the task force, questioned clearinghouse manager Regina Chacon about what statistics her division has for MMIW in New Mexico.

Chacon, who is deputy chief of the state's Law Enforcement Records Bureau, said the department wasn't aware of the MMIW issue until last year. Further, the department does not "really know how" to identify someone as Native American, she said. The clearinghouse form contains a box to indicate someone's race, but not ethnicity or tribal affiliation.

"I would ask the task force to help us identify criteria," Chacon said at Friday's meeting. "How would we know when, as a clearinghouse, to reach out and say 'What's the tribal affiliation? Is this a Native or non-Native person?'"

UNM's research found that both race and ethnicity data are not consistently collected by law enforcement, and misidentification of Indigenous people is common. Additionally, New Mexico law enforcement agencies often do not fully participate in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program or the National Incident Based Reporting System—gold standards in law enforcement records and data collection.

There are no changes on the horizon for the way law enforcement and the state collect race and ethnicity data to make it easier to track problem areas. The task force wants its report to help create legislation that will build better tracking systems and stronger laws to address MMIW, Salazar says. She hopes that will happen in 2020.

"I hope that in a year we would have already had a full list of things that the state needs to start working on—and maybe even tribal governments and other government agencies—and we can have that listed out and, actually, in a year, start some of those solutions," Salazar tells SFR.

But while collecting and analyzing data is a major aspect of a partial solution to the crisis, it does not solve built-in challenges to the system. Tribal governments only have criminal jurisdiction over Indigenous perpetrators. Non-Native people who commit crimes on reservations or against Native people can only be prosecuted by federal or state law enforcement.

That leaves a loophole that is often exploited by oil and gas industry workers housed in rural areas, aka "man camps," whose presence researchers and activists say correspond to increased rates of violence against women.

Documentary filmmakers explored that gap in the recently released Somebody's Daughter, which screened in Santa Fe. It chronicles factors such as drug and human trafficking across the country and the lack of federal legislation to specifically deal with MMIW.

"This is presented as a Native problem, or this is an Indigenous problem, and it's compartmentalized in that way," says Rain, director of Somebody's Daughter and a Romani as well as a member of the Strange Owl Family from Lame Deer and Birney, Montana. "No, this is a human rights issue."

>>>Related Reported Podcast Episodes: Interview with Lyla June Johnston and 'This is what I am, I'm Native' 

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