Indigenous Woman Walks Across Country In Search of MMIW Data and Answers
By the time you read this, Seraphine Warren will be miles beyond the town of Balko, Okla., alongside a small two-lane road on a trek for answers. Seraphine is walking to Washington, D.C. for her missing aunt, Ella Mae Begay, and for all MMIW relatives. She walked through Albuquerque on a rainy day a few weeks ago; which (rain) in itself is a good sign, a blessing as she left the borders of our cultural landscape as people of the Southwest and began walking the long lonely roads of the Midwest.
Seraphine pulls no punches, she is a tell-you-like-it-is individual. An iron worker by trade, she is tough as nails. We all got an auntie like her. She began to talk to me: “That’s the reason why I was kind of hesitant doing interviews is that they don’t really put in the real issue. Yep. They just highlight just, oh, she’s walking across, like it’s a good thing. When it’s like some real bad things behind it.”
I could understand the sentiment. I’m sure I was just one of several news and media outlets, organizations and community members all wanting a moment of her time. At times we forget that these people are literally using their bodies and lives to get a message across. She has a family, a job, bills to pay and a life of her own. But she has put all of that on hold and enlisted her ultra-runner trained brother as her medic and assistant along the way. The sacrifice is extreme: weather, physical pain and the strength of mind needed to carry on. Seraphine put it into perfect context.
“I also started learning about myself, how like everything, once I wake up, it’s my aunt. Once I wake up, it’s just things like, when it comes to me wanting to eat, I feel like I’m selfish because my aunt hasn’t ate. Just everything, even just planning this walk. When I was leaving from my house, I was looking around looking for things I need to take to survive, to get to DC. And I, was just like, what am I doing? Like, you don’t need those things. And I just instantly thought, my aunt didn’t get this chance. She didn’t even take what she needed. She just, she was just forced to go and she didn’t come back. So a lot of that, it, it, it’s just clicking my head, like how hard it is just to up and leave and what she might have been thinking at the time. Um, just those kinds of things. She probably had like plans for the next day, right? Yeah. She probably didn’t think this was gonna happen to her at all.”
Seraphine’s walk is not just a call to action, it is also a very personal journey of grief and healing and looking for answers. When asked what she would say to anyone she will meet in DC, she said that she doesn’t know quite yet, though she has a lot to say. Our discussion brought up many concerns including police agencies and their ability to do good police work. She had questions about resources. For instance, in the case of her own aunt, the family was not able to find qualified people and resources to do an extensive manhunt. She shared with me that in the time right after her Aunt went missing, those crucial hours, she found herself asking why she couldn’t get search-and-rescue assistance from law enforcement. The Navajo Nation volunteer search-and-rescue assisted at first, but after two weeks the family was left to search alone.
Her journey brings to light some glaring concerns about resources. Exploring how data is used and reported in terms of MMIW cases locally and nationally brings up some interesting issues. These issues include mis-profiling, staffing issues within law enforcement, lack of training and of course financial resources. MMIW is an issue that is heavy on the photo ops and promises from many leaders, Tribal and non-Tribal. For those in the trenches every day, politics can get frustrating. “Nez walks two miles and the press covers it like he did something. When we are still waiting for what he has promised,” as Seraphine mentions in regards to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. She said that she has met with him but feels that he hasn’t stepped up enough to make a serious change on MMIW issues.
So how do resources become reality? Public concern helps immensely, but data is what makes money move at the state and federal levels. Many times it is that federal dollar that Tribes use for law enforcement, no matter if it is Bureau of Indian Affairs Police or communities with their own law enforcement. The downside is that data turns people into numbers and it is hard to get people to care about numbers, even as the figures pile up.
Regina Chacon is the Bureau Chief at the New Mexico Department of Public Safety (DPS) and one of the leads on the data team, part of the MMIW task force brought together by the New Mexico’s Indian Affairs Dept. This task force created the state’s Response Plan in regards to MMIW. She told me why the data is important, “ I think understanding data and understanding how it is used is important, it helps to determine policies and strategies to locate missing persons and what resources and where resources need to be put. Without it, you don’t really know what you’re, what you’re working with, and what you’re dealing with.” But data comes with flaws sometimes, sometimes not enough information is provided or it is not entered correctly. “Is there missing data? Do I need to refine the data by adding more information for future data references? So, I think that’s why data is always important when you’re working with the criminal justice systems.”
Chacon explained how missing person data is supposed to be shared, “the first source of data sharing is the national crime information center, NCIC it’s the main database that law enforcement enters all missing persons into. And then we have a direct connection to NCIC. And so we’re able to see real-time, whenever every missing person is entered and that those two systems between the national crime information center, NCIC and the missing person’s clearinghouse data, both of those systems are able to be shared with all law enforcement, all criminal justice. And so, I think educating all law enforcement agencies, all criminal justice agencies who need to access that data is important. I don’t think some know that they exist.“
The last part of Chacon’s comment implies some unfortunate truths that lie in the reporting of data. The MMIW Task Force’s own research alludes to some of these difficulties. The following is straight out of their research and presented in the State Response Plan.
“In an effort to understand the current total number of MMIWR cases along with other statistical data across New Mexico, the MMWR task force made public information requests to law enforcement agencies across the state that had a significant American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) population.
“The data requested on all cases included:
• solved and unsolved missing persons
• suspicious deaths
• and deaths in custody involving an Al/AN and White (non-Hispanic) women or girl victims within that agency’s jurisdiction between 2014-2019.
“These requests were submitted between March and April of 2020. Unfortunately, the response from more than half of the agencies indicated that the scope of the request was too burdensome and broad, so they did not fill the request.”
Too burdensome? Basically, numerous agencies just said it was too hard to make this happen. As Chacon explained, it can be as simple as a staffing issue. “That’s always a possibility with all law enforcement agencies. That some of their missing persons aren’t entered, you know, I don’t think it’s specific to the Tribes per se, that they’re the ones that maybe are not sharing, law enforcement, they get busy in regards to the staff, and they’re not able to enter those missing persons into NCIC.”
It seems all it takes is a little pressure to move mountains. In 2019, New Mexico issued a fiscal report in response to HB-16 presented by former Rep. Joseph Sanchez (D-Dist. 40). His bill would require all New Mexico entries that were currently in the New Mexico Missing Persons Clearing House to be transferred over to NamUs, which is a national database of missing persons and cold cases. NamUs allows for forensic evidence to be submitted, even by registered family members, as well as providing investigators who might be able to assist families with advice. The response from the state’s fiscal report stated: “It would be difficult for [DPS] to ascertain which entries would need to be entered into NamUs that meet their criteria and with the investigative details of the case.”
But a mere ten months later in December of 2019, it was announced that all data had been transferred and from that point forward weekly additions to the NamUs database would be made so that it is up to date. You can understand why this is unsettling. How many times have people been told something is “not possible” when in fact all it takes is a little determination and adequate resources.
As Seraphine mentioned: “I get invited to do Zoom interviews and stuff. And you would think MMIW organizations and others knew by now what we need as far as what families are dealing with. They pretty much just asking me what the barriers are and all of this stuff. And it’s just so frustrating. I have to tell ’em what I need. And I’m pretty sure they have funding for the type of things that I’m asking for, but yep. It’s too much cuz they’re trying to help a lot of other families, too.”
A point made clear the day we spoke: Just hours before we talked, the national nightly news shared press conference clips from an update on a two-week-old missing person case in Utah. Casey Bokslaga, a twenty-nine-year-old white male, went missing on June 6, 2022, basically vanishing into thin air. The search had intensified after finding the vehicle abandoned. But the major difference here is that this person gets a multi-agency search, $50,000 in reward money offered and a two-week follow-up press conference asking for public assistance because leads had run dry. You never see this type of resource devoted to an MMIW case, even one for an elder like Seraphine’s Aunt Ella Mae.
Why do people like Ella Mae get lost in the system? One reason is resources. Seraphine’s family asked for drones, helicopters, ATVs and even people with horses willing to look in the backcountry, none of which came to be in her case. But maybe raising these questions publicly makes things happen. Earlier this year, the fire rescue team from Shiprock was in the news as having received a drone to help in searches like the one that never happened for Ella Mae. Now there is also an independent organization that has a team of search dogs working with local communities in the Four Corners area. But this is the exception and not the norm. And how do families begin to formally request these services? There is no standard procedure.
Another reason our Native people get lost in the system is that at the federal level and even the state level, there is no way to add Tribal affiliation in the data set. Considering New Mexico is home to 21 tribes as well as numerous relatives from Tribal communities from across the country, this information is important. As we know, each Tribe is a sovereign entity and therefore has different law enforcement situations, leadership and resources. Being able to identify which community you are working with is something that needs to be taken into account.
This is a recommendation the MMIW Task Force is working closely on and hopes to make possible very soon. They refer to Tribal identification in their official response plan: “Sometimes questions about race aren’t asked directly and inaccurate judgment calls are made. This leads to the mis-designation of racial groups. It impacts accountability and transparency and makes it challenging to identify where missing persons are going missing from. If that information is reported, the agency searching for the missing person can work alongside a Tribal agency to gather intel and information about the last known location, who that person was with, and any known habits of this person. All this information is critical to finding that missing person and keeping Tribal governments and families informed about what is taking place to find and bring their Tribal members home.”
At a state level, these issues are being corrected, but it will take a bit more effort to change them at the federal FBI National Crime Information Center. Furthermore, the state’s public safety department has made its mission to educate existing law enforcement and new State Police cadets on MMIW cases and accurate reporting.
Chacon hopes to make this education the new norm. “There is a curriculum for the new cadets for the state police side and for the law enforcement agencies. That goes through the academy and there also is a curriculum for what’s called recertification. And so we train law enforcement at the academy all the time, and what we really want to do is the outreach and education that the department of public safety wants to do. We’re willing to come and do training and do a talk, do whatever you need for your staff, for them to understand the missing person’s clearing house, understand the missing person laws and help in any way that we can and offer any resources that we can give.”
Yes, these cases are full of data that needs to be taken into account for resources to be earmarked. But these cases are actual families, real people left trying to manage a tragedy. Maybe it’s that information that needs to be shared so that we humanize these victims. We all have family that we would search the world for if lost.
So what does it take to make change happen? Sometimes it’s numbers, information and legislative maneuvering. Sometimes it is one woman, fed up with the system and walking to our nation’s capital to make her voice and the voice of a movement heard.
None of this is lost on Seraphine. “Everybody knows what’s going on. I just don’t know why they don’t say anything.” When asked what she would say, if she could say one thing to people in high places, she had a message for them, especially our males and tribal leaders. She wants people that talk the talk, to walk her walk. Until then, Seraphine will log mile upon mile in the summer’s heat so that these families and her Aunt Ella Mae are not forgotten, not just numbers.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).