San Juan County • When Ella Mae Begay went missing from her home in Sweetwater, Ariz., on June 15, search teams were dispatched across northern Arizona and into San Juan County, Utah, in an attempt to locate the 62-year-old. But as the investigation has dragged on and as the authorities look for signs of foul play, an important aspect of Begay’s life has been overlooked: her status as a master rug weaver.
The Sweetwater community knew Begay as an accomplished pictorial rug weaver, a type of art form in Diné (Navajo) culture, in addition to being a caregiver, loving elder, and matriarch.
“Her rugs really speak of who she was,” said Seraphine Warren, who recently walked more than 150-miles from her aunt’s home in Sweetwater to the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Ariz., to bring awareness to her aunt, and other missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Missing and murdered Indigenous people is a public health crisis. In Utah an Indigenous person is four times more likely to be a victim of homicide than a white person, and Indigenous people are also over-represented in active cases of missing reports in Utah, with 14% being Native women and 16% being Native males, according to the nonprofit Restoring Ancestral Winds (RAW), which has mission to end violence in Utah’s Eight Tribal Nations.
“She put details into her rugs,” added Warren, who lives in the Salt Lake Valley, and had been home in the Navajo Nation to help with the recurrent number of unresolved searches that also extended into southeast Utah. “You can tell what kind of person she was, as far as how she took colors and the designs she is going to make.”
A life lived through art
Some of those creative details caught the attention of Betty Rivard, of Charleston, West Virginia, who had come across Begay’s story in the Navajo Times and the Salt Lake Tribune, which both reported how the 62-year-old went missing. In her own research, Rivard connected the dots of the pictorial rugs she purchased, which she traced back to Begay after extensive online searches on the master weaver.
Rivard eventually contacted the Tribune, thinking that the fiber arts community across the Southwest could help fundraise for Warren and her family to find their missing aunt.
“Her work has a life of its own beyond her,” Rivard told the Tribune. She bought one of Begay’s designs from an antique shop in Michigan, and then another piece online from a gallery in Santa Fe.
The pictorials that Rivard purchased depict the modern living and story of Diné people. One rug is outlined with black borders and in the middle includes a story of two homes, sheep, the red canyon landscape of the Navajo Nation, and a truck with an open hood, with the words, “yah-ta-hey” or “Hello, welcome!” The second pictorial rug, Rivard observes, is more evolved in design and appears to be a more recent piece that made its way from the Shiprock Trading Post to the gallery in Santa Fe.
“There is so much power she brought to her weaving,” added Rivard, who is a landscape photographer, and began collecting Begay’s rugs because of the vivid details of how Begay lives through her weavings. “I just have the greatest respect for her as an artist.”
According to Navajo Nation Police Chief Philip Francisco, Begay’s case is now in the hands of the FBI and the Navajo Nation’s Criminal Investigations team. Francisco confirmed that Begay’s case changed from missing to foul play, which enlisted the help from the FBI because it is crime listed under the Major Crimes Act.
“We believe that through the information the FBI has received, it is more than likely that [the case] is foul play rather than being missing,” Francisco said.
Francisco added that the Navajo Nation Police Department has done its best to help with the case, noting it responded to calls early in the investigation, started gathering information, including tapping into local cell towers to find any patterns of movement, and relied on a regional network of law enforcement agencies to help with the search.
“I don’t know how to change this narrative that law enforcement is failing. Why did she go missing?” Francisco said, adding that crime trends across the Navajo Nation show an association of domestic violence and alcohol abuse with missing persons. “This is not a random crime. We know who these people are; they’re connected or related to the family.”
Indigenous women subject to an epidemic of violence and murder
More than 4 in 5 Indigenous women in America have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to RAW, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Justices’ National Institutes of Justice. Incidents range from sexual violence, physical violence by an intimate partner, stalking, and psychological aggression by an intimate partner.
Murdered Indigenous women are killed by an intimate partner in 55.4% cases, a 2017 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention found. When compared to other demographics, Indigenous women are fourth, behind Hispanic/Latino women (61%), Asian/Pacific Islander women (57.8%), white women at 56.8% and Black women at 51.3% when it comes homicide by an intimate partner.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told the Tribune that the Navajo Nation Police Department, Navajo Nation Criminal Investigations, and FBI are on the ground searching for Begay, and that he personally met with Warren and other immediate family members and asked them to be patient to allow law enforcement to do their investigations.
“Under the leadership of Chief Francisco, a plan is in the works to improve the dispatch system and to upgrade equipment to lessen response items in emergency situations,” Nez said. “We understand that more has to be done to get the word out, and get personnel on the ground quicker when a person is reported missing. Together, we have prayed with the family of Ella Mae, and I am hopeful that we will locate her.”
Michael Henderson, director for the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigations, stated that his office continues its investigation with partners.
“We are checking out every lead that reaches our ears, whether they’re credible or not,” he said.
From Warren’s perspective, the law enforcement agencies are not doing enough to help find her aunt.
“We’re trying to understand why this is happening and nobody has taken this seriously. There is no compassion or sympathy,” she said.