Phyllis Waukazoo is intently optimistic with the response plan New Mexico leaders presented Wednesday to address the systemic failures plaguing the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“I’m an actual mother of a survivor, and we kind of fled to this state for safety. So I wanted to be familiar with what’s going on,” said Waukazoo (Diné / Lakota / Ottawa). “It’s great to see this on paper. Now let’s see it really happen.”
New Mexico has the highest rate of violence against Native Americans in the country, and in 2019, the state Legislature passed a bill forming the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force.
The Indigenous women-led task force, a 40-member group with additional support from community members and families, named six objectives for the state of New Mexico, including law enforcement reforms and expanded support services like counseling.
Outlined in short-term and long-term goals, the list provides a framework for state lawmakers and advocates on what needs should be prioritized.
MMIWR task list for New Mexico
- Boost counseling and shelter services for people recovering from violent trauma
- Generate more education and prevention strategies in rural and tribal communities
- Build stronger partnerships between local and state support networks
- Leverage tribal court resources to bring in federal dollars
- Increase law enforcement capacity to investigate MMIWR cases
- Create of a consistent reporting system to both prevent and more quickly respond to crimes
That’s a lot of work, acknowledged N.M. Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo, but the task force report is essential in making it happen.
“I think it’s important to have this plan for us to be accountable,” said Trujillo (Sandia / Taos / Acoma). “It’s important to have this plan so that we can be prepared to go to interim committees and present on it, and then say, ‘Hey, here’s some opportunities for you.’ Legislators want to be educated, because some of them may not be about what’s going on in our own state, in their own district.”
Justice for Relatives
One of the key recommendations is to establish what’s called, confidential shelters that are located in tribal communities or bordertowns like Gallup and Farmington.
“The main barriers to establishing more local shelters include the lack of personnel, limited resources and political will,” the report states. “The majority of funding comes from federal grants and philanthropy.”
However, federal grants can take years to navigate before money comes, and donations to rural areas with the most need compete with cities like Albuquerque. This is why Trujillo would like to see state agencies — the Department of Health, the Department of Finance and Administration — collaborate on this plan to provide the resources to communities.
Trujillo said her job is to now identify priorities, and find lawmakers and other state agencies that can help make these recommendations a reality.
“Looking to the 2023 legislative session, a 60-day session, what is it that we can work on?” she said.
The 2022 legislative session showed that state lawmakers are willing to put support behind this cause. Two bills, one establishing a day of remembrance and another that gives the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office an investigative role in MMIWR cases, were passed and signed into law this year.
Delilah Tenorio is an assistant attorney general with the AG’s Office and is hoping to take on the newly created role within the office to lead investigations of MMIWR cases. She said the office has several active investigations into crimes committed against Native people.
“All cases are going to be different and we want the public to understand that not everybody is going to come to us with the right set of facts or the right set of circumstances in order to be successful with an investigation or prosecution,” she said. “We do understand that when they share their stories with us that they’re asking for help and they want some kind of resources or even just somebody to kind of sit and listen to what they have to say.”
Tenorio (Santo Domingo) is also on the task force, and she said she wants to bridge the barrier between law enforcement and community.
The task force cites a report from the National District Attorney’s Association published in April 2021 that states, 40% of crime victims did not know how to contact the resources for crime victims.
Making this information more readily available to the community is a priority because when “the planning and implementation, and evaluation, are not centered in the needs of victims, people will continue to be re-traumatized. When people are re-traumatized, it is hard for them to endure interactions with the system partners, even those trying to be helpful,” according to New Mexico’s MMIWR Task Force.
Those system partners include law enforcement, a presence Waukazoo mentioned as the speakers were taking photos to celebrate the event.
It’s a conflicted presence because she said police didn’t do much to help her when her daughter disappeared — or even follow up with an arrest when she returned.
“I’ve actually had some interaction with law enforcement here. And it wasn’t, you know, positive,” Waukazoo said. “I’m learning that that’s like the thing everywhere, the city we came from over here, it’s the same, the cops don’t want to help us.”
Waukazoo and her daughter left Oakland, California in 2018. “We went to the Sunrise Gathering at Alcatraz and left.” Their return to New Mexico not only connected her back to family, she said, but formed a renewed sense of community. The MMIWR event was also a way to heal from the past.
She said her daughter, now 20, went missing when she was 16. She fell into the hands of some sex traffickers, Waukazoo said. Her only solution to finding her daughter was social media.
“They told her, ‘You’re a hashtag. It’s time to go home.’”