WINDOW ROCK — Faces filled with grief and desperation stared at President Buu Nygren as he listened solemnly before the group of families gathered in the State Room.
The issue of missing and murdered indigenous women had reached a crisis point in the country, and he had invited these families to the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President to listen to their stories.
The President vowed his commitment to finding solutions.
He began by acknowledging the tragedy and injustice of the situation.
“I cannot imagine the pain you are going through not knowing where your loved ones are or what happened to them, the President said. “No parent should have to fear for the safety of their children.”
Seraphine Warren spoke first. Her aunt Ella Mae Begay went missing in June 2021. She brought several family members to visit with President Nygren.
Since her aunt’s disappearance, Warren has walked in Begay’s honor, in addition to making the public aware of her disappearance.
Indigenous women in the United States face higher rates of violence and murder than other groups. They are also more likely to go missing.
In the US, the murder rate for indigenous women is 10 times higher than the national average. For indigenous women between the ages of 25 to 34, the murder rate is more than 20 times higher.
Seraphine Warren said to President she and her family have been waiting for justice.
“We have been waiting for justice for so long. Promises have been made before and nothing changes,” said Warren.
Tears welled up in her eyes. Other family members chimed in with similar stories of delays, a lack of resources for investigations, and a lack of urgency from law enforcement.
Terlyn Sherlock, an aunt of Kimberlene Yellowhair, became emotional as she held up a missing person flyer when she began speaking of her niece, who she said was last seen by her family on Oct. 6, 2021, in Chilchinbeto, Arizona.
“It’s two years now since she left us. We’re still hopeful that we find her,” said Sherlock.
She went on to describe Yellowhair as being a single mother of a little girl and being a “quiet person,” who was now being raised by her father.
Sherlock said Yellowhair learned of her mother being missing when she saw a news segment on a local Phoenix, Arizona, News station about her.
“She called us and asked, ‘Is my mom really missing?’” Sherlock shared with President Nygren.
Sherlock went on to share that Yellowhair “served as a decoy” for Criminal Investigations, a Navajo Nation law enforcement arm that regularly works alongside the FBI working on major crimes committed on the Nation.
She alluded that Yellowhair went missing not long after helping “put some” of the alleged bootleggers and drug dealers “away.”
“She did her job,” said Sherlock. “But in the end, she went missing. They took her.”
Since going missing, Sherlock said Navajo police seem to not communicate with the family and their concerns.
“There is a breakdown in communication,” said Sherlock.
She suggested to the President a position acting as a liaison between police and families was needed so that communication does not break down.
“A middle person, an advocate, can find out where all the cases are, and do followups with family,” she said. “There’s a lot of us here missing someone from our family. Maybe some of us can form a board and sit with you, sit with Navajo police, the FBI, and make plans.”
Sherlock highlighted the desperation and trauma families experience and not being able to express it to anyone in an official capacity.
“It’s very sad that we’re trying to ask for help,” she said.
President Nygren thanked Sherlock and Warren for sharing their stories and said he was going to task executive staff member John Tsosie, whose job is to advocate for families missing loved ones, and families who’ve lost loved ones to murder; and his administration work on teaming up with the states of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
“That way, it isn’t just John (Tsosie) — it’s a group of people that all can come together and make sure that can strategize,” said President Nygren. “That could be a board or commission that comes together and advocates the Navajo Nation Council.”
President Nygren said his office could create a commission and then could start working on creating that middle person, Sherlock is referring to.
“You all know exactly where all the shortfalls are,” President Nygren said to the families.
Other families like Shanna Nez and Francis Descheenie spoke to President Nygren about Jevon Descheenie, who they say was found with handcuffs on after having been missing for more than two weeks.
Nez spoke to the President about her brother, who was arrested by Navajo police from the Shiprock Police District in November of last year.
“He was still handcuffed behind his back less than a half-mile from the police substation in Shiprock,” she said.
Nez added her brother’s autopsy revealed he died from drowning and was “highly intoxicated” at the time of his death.
“All we want to know is what really happened that night. Where are all the body cameras, were there any body cameras, where is the footage from the buildings around that area?” Nez asked. “We don’t know. We just want to know what happened to my brother.”
After hearing other families’ stories, Nez said all of their stories were the same in some way.
“We all want one thing — we want justice, we want closure,” she said to the President.
Diana Sandoval from Sanostee spoke of her son Dominic Sandoval, 22, a U.S. Army veteran, who was killed by a distracted driver in February 2022, while working at a road construction site on Colorado Highway 172, east of Durango, Colorado.
According to court records, Dominic was setting up a work zone with a co-worker when Virginia Cundiff crashed into his work truck.
Cundiff, the woman who caused the crash that killed Dominic, was sentenced to 15 months. She was originally facing a felony charge, but it was dropped because of a technicality. Court records indicate Cundiff caused another crash in August 2021, injuring the other person. She received 10 months for that crime.
“It’s not enough,” Diana said, referring to Cundiff’s 15-month sentence. “My son had a whole life ahead of him. It was cut short because of her stupidity.”
President Nygren listened intently, taking notes.
“You are right,” the President said. “The current system is failing you and real change has been too slow. We are working on making changes under my administration. It has been one of my priorities. No other families should have to endure what you all have been through.”
The President reiterated to the families that he’d be looking into creating a board or a commission made of families and survivors that could be tasked with helping create stricter laws in the Navajo Nation.
“I’m all for stricter laws that people will respect,” the President said. “Whatever is within the authority of the Navajo Nation, we can make laws a lot more strict.”
The room was quiet as his words hung in the air. Hope had been in short supply for so long. The families in attendance felt like they had an ally in President Nygren who was ready to fight for justice for them.
As President Nygren shook hands and embraced each family member, he vowed silently to do everything in his power to make good on his word and ensure grieving mothers and fathers did not have to fight this alone.
“Missing and murdered indigenous women is a serious issue that highlights larger problems of injustice, violence, and discrimination faced by Navajo and indigenous communities throughout the country,” the President said. “More work needs to be done to provide justice and protect indigenous women going forward.”