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Advocates for missing Indigenous people share frustrations of getting their stories heard

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Posted at 8:11 AM, Sep 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-27 10:11:02-04

Seraphine Warren has been relentlessly searching for her aunt, Ella Mae Begay, a talented weaver and elder of the Navajo Nation.

“It’s just getting harder to have any more hope that she's still alive," said Warren.

On June 15, Begay vanished from her home in Sweetwater, Arizona, in the middle of the night.

Warren is convinced some of her family members know more about what happened.

“It's three, over three months now. I don't understand how they found that that girl that went missing really quick. How did they do that, and we're just still stuck in one spot?” said Warren.

“She was really responsible. She also knew her surroundings. And then also, the dangers of those things happening because her husband was murdered 20 years ago,” said Warren.

Navajo police have named a person of interest, but there hasn't been much more information since.

“I want to tell everybody my story of what we're dealing with and how it's so hard to get help,” said Warren.

“The urgency to look for these relatives is often undermined by lack of resources, lack of paying attention to these bodies and these victims, silencing the families that do stand up and talk about these issues,” said Denae Shanidiin, director of MMIWhoismissing, a social media platform focusing on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

MMIWhoismissing is one of a few tribal advocate groups that fight every day to raise attention for this issue.

“It feels to us, who do missing and murdered work all the time. We've gotten more media attention just writing off of the Gabby Petito case than we've ever received in our careers in our advocacy. And so, it doesn't feel good, right? It feels reactionary to a white woman's death,” said Shanidiin.

The Sovereign Bodies and Urban Indian Health research institutes found the media has played a role in perpetuating harm on Indigenous people, citing institutional racism in the media, and a lack of relationships between journalists and American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

Shanidiin cited other issues like over sensationalizing violence on tribal lands and not mentioning a victim's name. Record keeping and racial misclassifications are also a problem.

“And so, when you're invisible on the data, you're invisible to resources and you're invisible to the media, you're invisible to the general public,” said Shanidiin.

Distrust of law enforcement and lack of resources are also issues.

Shanidiin says accurate data collection of crimes against Indigenous people is some of the most important work happening now.

Organizations are forming toolkits to help families with missing persons.

For now, families of the missing are rallying their own resources to keep searching.

“I’m fighting to try to just make it loud and just let everybody know that she's very important to us, and one of my birthday wishes for her is for us to find her that day,” said Warren.