Navajo Nation officials are working to increase efforts to track the number of tribal members who are missing and murdered, as federal legislation to mandate data collection lags in Congress.
The push for more comprehensive statistics comes after a first-of-its-kind forum last week that brought together around 100 tribal officials, leaders and other stakeholders to discuss the issue in Shiprock, New Mexico.
The lack of data has plagued efforts to quantify the problem and bring more federal attention to the matter, according to organizers of the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives forum, which was held at Diné College on Thursday and Friday.
Diné College School of Business and Social Science Dean Michael Lerma announced that he is planning to hire a faculty member to start the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives data institute.
“I could do it tomorrow,” Lerma said. “I’m seriously considering not only doing that but asking for [money] for a second position dedicated to the missing and murdered issue, too.”
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who is a member of the Sexual Assault Prevention Subcommittee for the Navajo Nation Council, said information on missing and murdered tribal members is either hard to track down or unavailable.
Kanazbah Crotty, who is also a member of the Navajo Nation Council subcomittee on sexual assault prevention, said there’s a need to record attempts to try to find those who’ve gone missing, as well as what can be done to help families missing loved ones.
“How could we not know how many are gone, how many are missing, how many active cases, how many cold cases?” said Kanazbah Crotty, who helped to organize the event. “These, I felt, were very simple questions I thought our federal partners could answer, and we just did not have that information.”.
The federal government does not track the number of Native Americans who go missing or are murdered in the United States. Legislation called Savanna’s Act would require the federal government to do so. The bill was first introduced in 2017 and reintroduced in January this year.
The goal of the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives Forum is to provide an opportunity for the families of missing or murdered people and other community members to have a say in how the information collection is done, Kanazbah Crotty said.
Representatives from the Navajo Nation Department of Public Safety also presented the department’s efforts and challenges related to missing persons cases.
“We have to ask personal questions [when investigating missing persons cases],” said Malcolm Leslie, a criminal investigations supervisor for the Navajo Police. “That’s when people shut down.”
Leslie added that Navajo Nation investigators are assigned an average of 40 to 50 cases a year, compared to an average of 18 cases a year for non-tribal investigators.
Another focus of the forum was the Major Crimes Act, which gives federal agencies jurisdiction over violent crimes, like rape and murder, that occur on tribal land.
Speaking on a panel about the law, University of Arizona law professor Robert S. Williams Jr. said that jurisdictional gaps create data gaps. He added that the prosecutorial declination rate for white-on-Indian crime is between 80% and 90%.
There’s also a lack of resources for the Navajo Nation’s law enforcement, according to Diné College professor Milton Bluehouse Jr. He said Navajo police received almost 250,000 calls last year, while the Nation’s Department of Public Safety employs around 200 officers.
“We need to fix our system before we ask for jurisdiction, or it’s only going to make the problem worse,” he said.
The next Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives Forum meeting is planned to be held in August in Tuba City, Ariz.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.