Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Families rack up hefty expenses as they search for info on their missing or murdered loved ones

The Not Invisible Act Commission hearing session last week in Albuquerque ended with a list of familiar recommendations that could take months, if not years, to resolve systemic problems and improve the federal government’s response to human trafficking and violence against Indigenous people.

Better communication between tribal, state and federal police when a Native American person goes missing or is found dead.

Strengthening protection in the Violence Against Women Act.

Expanding resource networks for housing, therapy and support for people who survive these traumas.

Commissioner Ruth Buffalo said about 40 families and groups, including on-the-ground service providers and law enforcement, testified at the Albuquerque stop. Buffalo (Mandan / Hidatsa / Arikara Nation) said these recommendations are consistent with what the commission has heard at other listening sessions across the country.

These are likely to be included in a report to the White House during the Tribal Summit in November, she said.

Ruth Buffalo holds her necklace after making a speech at the press conference on July 1 at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Buffalo is a member of the Not Invisible Act Commission.(Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source New Mexico )

These are also all ideas that were presented by the New Mexico Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force in May 2022 as part of a six-point action plan.

While progress remains steady to achieve these goals statewide, the problems persist, and more families are showing up to these events with more pictures of loved ones demanding answers to why the system is failing them, and what can be done now to offer relief.

Building more family resources is an obvious solution that advocates say is required right now, and the need was represented in more than words by the presence of Mona Vallo’s large family.

The FBI poster seeking information into the death of Mona Vallo.

On March 9, 2022, Vallo (Yakama / Acoma) was killed in a suspected hit-and-run on New Mexico Highway 124 at mile marker 20 in Laguna Pueblo. She had moved from the Yakama Nation in Washington state to take care of her dad in Acoma Pueblo four years earlier. It was the first time Vallo lived in New Mexico, her sister Mixshlitinmia said.

Vallo’s death is still under investigation by the FBI, which last week increased its reward to $10,000 for any information leading to an arrest.

The FBI increased its reward in part thanks to the 17 different family members that traveled together from Washington state to Albuquerque to honor Vallo’s death, including nine of her grandchildren, four of her children and four siblings.

The Vallos received gas cards from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington group to travel together, but everything else came out of pocket from savings and fundraising. “We had a cooler full of sandwiches. We’d sleep at rest stops — whatever it took to get here for my mom,” her daughter Serafino Vallo said.

The family also had to rent a van to take Mona’s belongings back to Washington. Add up the costs of flyers they posted around New Mexico, offerings to show gratitude for visits to Laguna and Acoma Pueblo, wages lost from missing work, T-shirts and signs with Mona’s face, and the Vallos are out a few thousand dollars so far in their fight for justice.

Vangie Randall-Shorty (center) speaks into a microphone on behalf of her son Zachariah Juwaun Shorty. Recently, Darlene Gomez (right) helped to get a billboard put up to amplify the search into Zachariah’s death. (Photo by Jeanette DeDios for Source New Mexico)

“Each family has to speak on behalf of their family members,” lawyer and advocate Darlene Gomez said. “You have to be present, saying their name. And for a lot of people, that means taking time off from work, driving tremendous distances, food, lodging. The cost now for a flyer that is in color can be up to $1 a page. And a lot of families like to do billboards, and those run about $750 a month.”

The trip for the Vallos included a visit with the Pueblo of Laguna governor and testimony before the Not Invisible Act commissioners. They also got the news about the FBI reward doubling and were asked to have an in-person meeting with the bureau on July 5.

Of course, in order to stick around for the meeting, that means more money the Vallos need to spend.

Upon hearing the news about the FBI interview, the New Mexico Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women stepped up to offer some funds to help cover the costs for the extended stay.

“There aren’t clear ways for support and families,” coalition Director Angel Charley said. “There’s so many restrictions when it comes to federal funding.”

Charley (Laguna) said the organization is not allowed to use any of the federal funds it receives on a family’s personal expenses, such as gas or food. That support for the Vallos will come from the coalition’s private donors.

Dell Sanchey, Mona Renee Vallo’s oldest grandson, wears a vest with a red hand print on the back during a press conference on July 1 at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source New Mexico )

While the Vallos were sorting out their new travel plans and deciding who would stay for the FBI meeting and who would have to return to Washington, another family was sharing their story but keeping an eye on the clock to be on time for work.

Geraldine Toya has been her daughter Shawna Toya’s advocate ever since she was found dead at Phil Chacon Park in Albuquerque in 2021. Because of her job, she was unable to testify in person at the Not Invisible Act meetings but arrived on Saturday at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for an event for families.

Toya’s case was ruled an overdose by the Albuquerque Police Department, something Geraldine Toya sees as a racial bias “It’s not easy because there was so much negligence all the way around. Starting from the officers on scene.”

While the case is closed, she said the Bernalillo County District Attorney is continuing to investigate the circumstances, possibly reopening the case. This is something she believes is only possible due to her family’s persistent advocacy.

“I started documenting everything, doing my own little investigation,” she said. “Started writing down everything, the officers’ names that we’re seeing, the two that were there. The phone calls I have from different police. Everything.”

And on top of the emotional and physical toll, the financial burden is also on the Toyas.

“Anything this commission does should include support for families to help us pay for what we are doing,” Toya said. “We are paying for everything to keep these cases moving forward.”

Geraldine Toya, the mother of Shawna Toya, makes a speech while surrounded by family members during a press conference on July 1 at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source New Mexico )

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