President Buu Nygren stands with families on National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — A windy Friday afternoon kept about 100 people company as they walked to remember their missing or murdered loved ones.
But the wind didn’t seem to bother the families as they trekked the seven-mile journey from Fort Defiance to Window Rock.
The walk, sponsored by the Buu Nygren administration, was held in conjunction with National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which is on May 5.
Navajo Nation President Nygren signed a proclamation, Observing May 5, 2023, as a Day of Awareness & Diligence in Combatting the Missing & Murdered Diné Relatives Epidemic, on Friday morning.
The family of Laverda Sorrell, who vanished in July 2002, joined the president during the signing of the proclamation. The family participated in the walk later in the afternoon.
The issue of MMIW has gained increased attention in recent years, as studies have shown that Indigenous women are significantly more likely to experience violence and murder than non-Indigenous women. According to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than non-Indigenous women.
Executive staff assistant John Tsosie, spoke at the end of the walk and said President Nygren and his administration was the first in his 20 years of raising awareness on domestic violence, sexual assault, and MMIW.
“We've asked administration after administration to, ‘Please put this issue at the forefront,’” said Tsosie. “And I will say this with confidence, this administration, the Nygren-Montoya administration has definitely shown that they care that they want positive change, and I'm so proud of this administration.”
The walk gave families the opportunity to remember and honor their loved ones, as well as the lives of Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people who have been impacted by violence. It was also a call to action to address the root causes of the violence, including systemic racism, colonialism, and gender-based violence.
Tsosie said since taking on the task of addressing MMIW-related issues, he said his first order of business was “tearing down those walls of miscommunication,” with law enforcement.
“We know there's a breakdown because we hear it every day,” he said of the lack of communication between families and law enforcement. “There's a breakdown in communication. So, I thank (Criminal Investigations) Director (Mike) Henderson, (Navajo Nation Police Chief Daryl) Noon, and (Navajo Division of Public Safety) DPS Director Mike Anderson, for beginning those talks.”
President Nygren thanked Tsosie for his years of advocacy and helping families.
“I couldn't think of another person that had really good connections, an understanding with the Navajo Nation Council, and the President's office,” said President Nygren. “So, bringing on John wasn't a question, it was, ‘Okay, on January 10, you better be ready to go.’”
Nygren had flags across the Navajo Nation fly at half-staff to remember the victims and survivors. In addition, the President told the crowd he began discussions with Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Crotty to allocate funding for a MMDR-MMIIP-MMIW park.
“Just imagine if the Navajo Nation Council approved legislation and allocated funds so that a park could actually be established that is focused on the MMIP efforts. I know that Honorable Crotty is working on legislation. But I’ll fully support that legislation if it comes before my desk. It will be signed.”
To date, an exact number of Navajo people who’ve gone missing or have been murdered remains unknown. However, the FBI has begun compiling a list. They estimate that more than 200 are missing. The Navajo Police Department also created a list and have identified 82 Navajo people who’ve gone missing.
Mary K. Yazzie, 83, from Pinon, Arizona, participated in the walk to honor and remember her granddaughter Jamie Yazzie and Kevin Ryan Hanley, her grandson
Yazzie spoke in Navajo and explained the disappearance of her granddaughter, who was working at the Pinon Health Center in 2019. She said Hanley was shot and killed at the local gas station in Pinon in 2017. She didn’t say if the alleged shooter was apprehended or if his case was still active.
Yazzie shared one more tragic story: the unsolved death of her son.
“Many years ago, I lost my oldest son,” she said. “Even without a vehicle of my own, I tried to get answers from the police in Chinle. I’m getting old now. I’m not sure how much longer I can walk for them.”
Despite her age, she said she and her family continue to travel to Window Rock and across the reservation advocating on her granddaughter’s behalf.
Tre C. James, 30, of Pinon, was arrested for first-degree murder and several acts of domestic violence in August 2022. A federal grand jury returned an eight-count indictment against James.
James allegedly shot and killed Jamie Yazzie, whose remains were found on the Hopi Reservation in November 2021. Yazzie was listed as a missing person by both federal and tribal law enforcement. The circumstances of her disappearance were investigated jointly by the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety Criminal Investigation Services, Navajo Police, the BIA, Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, and the FBI.
A suspect in the disappearance of Ella Mae Begay, 62, was arrested on April 3.
Preston Henry Tolth, 23, of New Mexico, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Phoenix on March 14, 2023. The grand jury returned a two-count indictment for Assault Resulting in Serious Bodily Injury and Carjacking Resulting in Serious Bodily Injury, according to an April 4 statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.
The indictment alleges that, on or about June 15, 2021, Tolth assaulted the victim, resulting in serious bodily injury to her. It further alleges that Tolth took the victim's Ford F150 pick-up truck, and transported it across state lines, with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to the victim.
Begay’s niece, Seraphine Warren, who’s become a staunch advocate for her aunt and missing and murdered Indigenous people, walked across the country in June 2022 meeting with key officials from the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice.
Warren’s intention was to bring attention to issue that Indigenous country have faced.
Warren’s Facebook page, Trailing Ellamae, recorded her walk that started from Sweetwater, Arizona, and ended in Washington, D.C.
Mary K. Yazzie said the nonstop advocacy of bringing awareness to her granddaughter’s story, she said the campaign has resulted in inspiring other families to raise awareness of their missing loved ones.
The Navajo police has established a Missing Persons Detective Unit that actively investigates all missing cases.
Before the conclusion of the event, President Nygren told the crowd he was making a commitment to them.
“When that legislation comes before me, there's no ands, ifs, or buts about it because we really need the resources in place so that families who are constantly asking, ‘When is somebody going to listen to me? When is somebody going to follow up? I've asked for these reports. I've asked for additional questions from the FBI’ — all these these things that you're thinking about as family members, we want to make sure that there's people in place, resources in place,” said President Nygren.