Using her own time and money, Seraphine Warren searches for her aunt, Ella Mae Begay, who went missing last year. At this point, she thinks she is doing more than the authorities to find her.
The 62-year-old rug weaver vanished in the middle of the night in the small community of Sweetwater, which straddles the Utah-Arizona state line in the Navajo Nation. Warren claims her aunt would have been found quickly if there were enough law enforcement resources and if there were no jurisdiction issues with policing.
When Warren is not searching for Begay, she is thinking and praying about finding her. The search has inspired Warren to walk hundreds of miles in prayer and to deliver messages to public officials to bring more awareness to the epidemic known as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
On May 5, activists and Native communities wore wear red and held events to raise awareness of the issue — as well as the fact that native men, boys and LGBTQ community members also go missing — with National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.
President Joe Biden issued a proclamation on Wednesday about the day and called for a federal response. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced Thursday a federal commission of law enforcement, tribal leaders, social workers and survivors of violence to help with how the government responds to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous persons.
“The MMIP crisis is one that Native communities have faced since the dawn of colonization,” Haaland said during a virtual event. “For too long this issue has been swept under the rug by our government, with a lack of urgency and retention for funding.”
The federal commission will help guide the Department of Interior and Department of Justice to focus on ending the crisis with tracking and reporting data of missing persons, homicide and human-trafficking data, as well as ways to share this data with tribal governments, Haaland said.
The National Crime Information Center reported that in 2016 there were about 5,712 reports of missing Native women and girls and that the U.S. Department of Justice’s database had only logged 116 of them.
The Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) reported in 2018 that Salt Lake City was in the top 10 out of 71 cities for Native women going missing and being murdered, although the Salt Lake City Police Department disputed the finding.
These reports are partly why the Legislature, led by Rep. Angelo Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and the advocacy of the nonprofit Restoring Ancestral Winds (RAW), created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Taskforce in 2020 to improve the state’s response when Indigenous women and girls go missing or are murdered.
Romero hopes that the study from the state task force will bring accurate information to provide more resources, especially since there is conflicting information about the reality of MMIWG cases in the state.
“When we have the Urban Indian Health Institute saying one thing, but then we have law enforcement saying the other thing, I want to find the truth and I’m not trying to point fingers at law enforcement. I’m not trying to point fingers at the Urban Indian Health Institute. I just want to know what the truth is,” Romero said.
While Warren does not wait for a national day of awareness to search for her missing aunt, who she says has been ruled a victim of homicide by the FBI, she appreciates what May 5 means for Native and Alaska Native communities in the U.S.
“There’s a lot of people that are just going missing, and there’s just no answers,” said Warren, who knows of at least 25 other cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people from her prayer walks. “A lot of them are murdered and the families are trying to seek justice for that.”
Later this month, Warren will host a prayer walk called “Reunite Our Missing: Justice for Our Murdered” to journey with relatives and allies from the four cardinal directions and plant a tree at Nizhoni Park in Shiprock, N.M. The walk is scheduled for May 21 at 8 a.m. MST.
The nonprofit RAW traces the issue of MMIWG to the colonization of the continent and the founding and expansion of America, which pushed Native communities off of their ancestral lands using war, murder and disease. The historical trauma persists, they say.
RAW works across Utah’s eight sovereign tribal nations to end violence against Native people — whether that is domestic violence or sexual assault.
On Thursday, RAW, along with the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake and MMIWhoIsMissing, a social media voice that leverages resources for missing persons and families, planted seeds for food at “Carry the Water Garden,” a healing garden located at 1459 S 1000 W in Salt Lake City.
Yolanda Francisco, executive director for RAW, said that wearing red on May 5 is encouraged to acknowledge MMIWG Day. The nonprofit also held a vigil for Indigenous boarding school survivors, who often were forcibly removed from their homes, to coincide with MMIWG Day. In some cases, children never returned home and died on school grounds.
“We are collaborating with these organizations who do different types of work in terms of not only awareness but also raising the level of urgency for folks who are in places of power to really shine a light on how bad this problem is,” Francisco said.
Romero said that MMIWG Day also includes the LGBTQ communities and that the issue of missing and murdered Native Americans should matter to all of Utah, not just rural communities.
“I think there’s just a lot of misconceptions about who our Indigenous community members are and so part of addressing murdered and missing Indigenous women is to talk about who we are as a community,” Romero said.
Almost every month, Warren, who lives on the Wasatch Front, drives the hundreds of miles back to the Navajo Nation to organize searches in hopes of bringing justice for her aunt — even if that means coming across her remains.
“We’re trying to end this epidemic of missing people,” Warren said.