Utah’s new Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls task force is finally coming together

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Jordan Daniel (Kul Wicasa Oyate) prepares to run a stretch of road on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, as part of the “Running As Medicine - Indigenous Youth Prayer Run" from Bears Ears National Monument to Salt Lake City. Daniel often places a red handprint on her face during runs to spread awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), a crisis which a new Utah task force is seeking to address.

Bluff • When Meskee Yanabah Yatsayte started Navajo Nation Missing Persons Updates seven years ago, she’d never heard of the acronym MMIWG, which stands for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and wasn’t widely used at the time.

Yatsayte did, however, know there was a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the United States.

“We’ve had several people in our family murdered,” she said. “I’ve had several friends murdered.” Yatsayte noticed Navajo Nation residents experiencing similar tragedies were posting information about missing relatives in Facebook swap pages, and she was shocked to learn that there was no official outlet for sharing information about missing persons on the reservation.

So she created a Facebook page dedicated to the issue in 2013, which is still updated frequently, and Yatsayte has pressured the Navajo Nation government to make more resources available to families in missing persons cases.

In the years since, MMIWG has become a rallying cry for missing persons advocates across Indian County and in urban areas, who are pushing tribal, local, state and federal officials to do more to address MMIWG issues.

According to a 2012 report from the United States Department of Justice, Native American women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average on some reservations, and Utah and Salt Lake City both rank in the top 10 among U.S. states and cities for the highest number of MMIWG cases, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control listed homicide among the six leading causes of death for Native American women under the age of 44.

But Yatsayte and many other experts on the issue agree that the data is faulty at best, and the true numbers could be much higher.

“One of the critical areas of study, review and recommendation [for MMIWG advocates] is data collection systems within the state, and for law enforcement in particular,” said Yolanda Francisco-Nez (Diné), executive director of the Utah-based group Restoring Ancestral Winds, a nonprofit funded by the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Francisco-Nez said that law enforcement or medical examiners often misidentify Native Americans in missing persons or homicide cases, or tribal affiliation is not recorded. “This makes it extremely difficult to track and find numbers that are specific to Native American people who are missing and murdered,” she said.

To make matters worse, overlapping jurisdictions of county, state, federal and tribal law enforcement have often led to delays in missing persons reports being filed.

Looking at the alarming, if incomplete, statistics, Restoring Ancestral Winds began urging the Utah Legislature to do more to address the issue in Utah several years ago. The group found an ally in Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored a resolution in 2019 that made May 5 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and LGBT+ Awareness Day.

“We ran the resolution honoring the memory of murdered and missing Indigenous women and reminding people that this is an epidemic in our country,” Romero, who identifies as Hispanic and Assiniboine (part of the Sioux Nation), said. “And when the resolution passed, we knew that we had enough support to put together a task force.”

Romero sponsored a bill earlier this year to create a nine-person task force to compile a report on ways the state could better respond to MMIWG issues. President Donald Trump had created a federal task force on the issue in late 2019, and Romero said that helped to spur bipartisan support for the issue in Utah, including sponsorship from Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, whose district overlaps with the Navajo Nation.

“What [Trump’s action] showed is that, like most of my legislation, this is a human rights issue, and it doesn’t have a R or D behind it,” Romero said. “And so for me, that’s the way I framed it. This is an epidemic in our country. This is an epidemic in our state. And how do we move forward together to make sure we correct that and bring justice for many families?”

“The task force’s goal is to tackle these complex issues and prevent further injustices from occurring,” Hinkins said in a statement. “We are committed to working in partnership with tribal leaders and community members to overcome barriers and create change around this important matter.”

The bill passed and was signed into law in March just as COVID-19 and an earthquake in Salt Lake City delayed its implementation. The task force was originally scheduled to complete its report by November, but Romero said that won’t likely happen due to the delays.

“I’m working with my legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle on extending it,” she said.

Its members, including representatives from Restoring Ancestral Winds, the Urban Indian Center, the Paiute Indian Tribe and several state officials, were announced this week, and the task force will likely meet twice before the November deadline. Tribal leaders from across the state will also be invited to the meetings, Francisco-Nez said.

Due to gaps in data collection, Yatsayte urged the task force to hear stories directly from Indigenous people who have missing or murdered loved ones, including LGBTQ people and men, the latter of whom account for the majority of missing and murdered people on the Navajo Nation.

“Nothing is more important than the stories of the families because that’s where [the task force] is going to collect the most important data, and they’ve got to respect these families when they come forward and have trauma counselors available,” she said. “It will be so hard for them to do, but is also going to benefit the people on the task force to realize what is needed.”

Yatsayte also suggested the task force join one of her initiatives to create information sheets for tribal communities with detailed contact information and step-by-step guides that people should follow if a relative or friend goes missing.

On Monday, the same day the Utah task force members were announced, Congress passed two long-awaited pieces of legislation supported by MMIWG advocates, Savanna’s Act, which is designed to improve federal data collection and data sharing between agencies and and the Not Invisible Act, which establishes an advisory commission of survivors and family members.

“This has been in discussion for a very long time and we are just so pleased that both of these acts passed,” said Francisco-Nez, adding that they represent significant steps for the movement.

“It’s great to have the media and also the Legislature focus on these issues,” she continued, “however, I think ... the true test will be whether there’s going to be a real outcome that will benefit an accurate count of ... missing and murdered [Indigenous people].”

Yatsayte said the legislative efforts should be viewed as a starting place, not a resolution to the issue. “The numbers will never be accurate,” she said. “There is so much misinformation. There are so many cases that are miscategorized. We have a really long road ahead of us to try and get this figured out. But being on the road is a start.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.