Utah Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women task force hears about jurisdiction issues in first meeting

Jurisdictions and sovereignty hold back the investigations of crimes in San Juan County.

Bluff • Gabby Petito just passed through Utah. But when she went missing in late August this year, the whole country took notice. There was national media attention and coordination between state and federal law enforcement agencies.

For attendees of a meeting of Utah’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and Girls task force in Bluff, Petito’s case shows exactly the type of attention that Indigenous women should get when they go missing — but that they don’t receive.

According to the nonprofit Restoring Ancestral Winds (RAW), four out of five Indigenous women and girls are affected by violence. Native women also face homicide rates that are more than 10 times the national average. Salt Lake City and Utah rank in the top 10 among U.S. cities and states for the highest numbers of MMIW cases, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute.

The task force was created in 2020 by the Legislature to improve the state’s response when Indigenous women go missing or are murdered. Federally, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), secretary for the Department of Interior, formed the Missing and Murdered Unit under the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At the task force meeting, community members, mainly from the Navajo Nation, argued rules over jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty hold back the investigations of crimes against Indigenous people in San Juan County.

Community members pleaded with state leaders to meet with Navajo Nation leadership to reinstate a cross-deputization agreement with San Juan County Sheriff’s Office to improve police response in the county. Cross-deputization is a legal agreement that allows police from different jurisdictions to prosecute an arrest. While that is the case, sometimes cross-deputization infringes on tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction, says Navajo Nation Chief of Police Philip Francisco.

Up until a few years ago, San Juan County officers entered the Navajo Nation in criminal cases, but that agreement expired. Critics say the layers of jurisdiction have enabled higher crime in the county and slowed response times.

“There’s a lot of things that can be better,” said Reuben Jim, of Bluff, to the task force. “Crime is beginning to rise. If you’re not going to help people, then why is there jurisdiction? Be helpful to the people.”

According to Francisco, the county and the Navajo Nation Police Department already work together and help on emergency calls. Francisco said that the cross-deputization agreement with San Juan County still needs Navajo Nation Council approval.

“We have been working on this for over a year, but red tape and bureaucracy with the Navajo Nation is the holdup,” he said. But he cautioned that an agreement by itself would not drive down crime.

“Elected officials and communities are under the misconception that cross-[deputization] agreements will put more officers in their communities,” Francisco said. “This is not the reality because county or state officers are short staff and have the first obligation to take care of their jurisdiction. They have to comply with Navajo laws and the justice system when they do take action.”

San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes said that on Nov. 29 the public safety departments from the Navajo Nation and San Juan County would meet in Aneth to discuss the proposed agreement.

Ella Mae Begay, 62, is one of these missing Indigenous women and an active case. An elder master weaver, Begay has been missing since June. In stark contrast to Pettito’s case, the effort to find Begay has been limited by resources, say Begay’s family and community leaders, who have organized search efforts throughout San Juan County to find their beloved elder.

In attendance last weekend were Navajo Nation Council delegates Nathaniel Brown, Charlaine Tso and Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who have all worked with nonprofits like Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives and RAW to end violence among Native women across the Navajo Nation.

Brown told task force members that he would like funds funneled toward more sting operations to uncover organized drug crime and human trafficking he sees happening in the Navajo Nation.

They each shared the need for resources like surveillance cameras across state highways to track any criminal activity. Unlike the strapped Navajo Nation and its police department, the state has personnel, technology and funds to help this portion of the state, they said.

Tso, who represents Begay’s community, said native people going missing are underreported in the state and federal databases and asked for better data collection in crimes.

Rep. Angelo Romero, a co-chair of the task force, said the meeting in Bluff would be the first of many listening sessions to hear from the communities directly and show them that the state cares about their welfare and safety.

“We wanted to talk about jurisdiction because we wanted to talk about the complexities, and we wanted all the same people in the room, just so we all get a better grasp of what’s going on and where the miscommunication is, and what are the challenges,” Romero said.

For Tso, Begay’s case shows the need to act. She said she wonders where Begay is at all hours of the day. She’s also been on several search efforts as a community leader.

“Who could have done this to her?” she asked over Zoom. “We have this adrenaline and determination to find her, to bring her home. And that is the reminder that I have every day when I go home. This is real and is happening.”