Dozens of people participated in an honor walk as part of a day of awareness event for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women on May 5, 2021.
Dozens of people gathered in the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock Wednesday wearing red and holding signs in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Several families gathered at the event wearing shirts and carrying signs dedicated to their loved ones who either went missing or were murdered. Some those signs were seeking justice for Laverda Sorrell, Ariel Begay and Tasha Lewis.
Wednesday was set aside to raise awareness of the issue, with proclamations issued by tribes, Arizona and President Joe Biden.
A vigil and other events drew people to the state Capitol in Phoenix on Wednesday evening. Phoenix Indian Center CEO Patricia Hibbeler, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the event was to raise awareness and remember loved ones.
“It’s all about saying their name and making sure that their tragedy helps change what comes in the future,” she said.
Among the crowd of people in Window Rock was the family of Laverda Sorrell, a Navajo woman who went missing in 2002 in Fort Defiance.
Her brother, Charles Guy Jr., stood at a podium in front of the Navajo Nation Council chamber wearing a gray shirt with red lettering that said, “Justice for Laverda” and talked about his sister.
“Nineteen years ago, Laverda was last seen in Fort Defiance at the old middle school campus,” Guy said, adding that was where her husband said he dropped her off at 11 p.m. on July 2, 2002.
Since her disappearance, Guy said Laverda’s children have gone on to graduate from high school, college and have children.
“They all were cheated of the love that only a mother can give,” he said.
Honor walk in Window Rock pays tribute to MMIW
Surrounded by his family, all wearing the same shirt, Guy held back tears and continued to talk about how his sister’s missing-person case has been frustrating and disappointing.
“We had a difficult and exhausting time convincing law enforcement that something horrible had happened,” Guy said. Her family knew she would not abandon her children or family.
“We are now on our third FBI investigator,” Guy added. “It should not take 19 years to solve a homicide case that has a history of domestic violence.”
The family raised funds to bring more awareness to Sorrell’s disappearance. They have put up a billboard near Gallup, New Mexico, with information about her case and how to reach law enforcement agencies with any information.
“It’s been 19 years since our sister has gone missing,” Guy said. “That void is never going to be filled in our hearts. It’s been a long, hectic road for us.”
But Guy said he feels that with the momentum coming from the MMIW movement something positive will happen.
Guy said several organizations have helped them get his sister’s case known. He thanked the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives group and Walking a Healing Path.
It’s only been in recent years that the family has started to participate in awareness events, including the one Wednesday.
“There is good momentum on bringing awareness to the missing and murdered,” he added.
An honor walk was hosted as part of the MMIW event and organizers dedicated it to Sorrell’s family. Guy was heartened to see how many people showed up to the event.
“Today, with the support of all these people, it’s nice to see all the red representing MMIW and it makes me feel good that all my family is here united,” he added.
The MMIWG event in Window Rock was hosted by the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives group, Walking the Healing Path Inc., Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition and the Window Rock Unified School District.
“When we talk about that issue we must always remember that the foundation is domestic violence and sexual assault,” John Tsosie, the co-founder of Walking the Healing Path, said of the MMIW crisis during the event. “Those are the main reasons why our Indigenous women and girls are targeted.”
Tsosie led the walk from the Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock to the parking lot of the Tsehootsooi Middle School in Fort Defiance. The walk was about six miles, and families gathered in the parking lot for a candlelight vigil to honor all Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.
Family of victims, advocates gather for change at the Capitol in Phoenix
About 80 people, including families of victims and lawmakers, gathered at the Capitol in downtown Phoenix for speeches, exhibits and solidarity. At dusk, the Capitol rotunda was lit up in red in honor of the day.
The Phoenix Indian Center’s Red Dress Project Display hung up red dresses with the names of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Hibbeler said skirts are historically worn by Native Americans to celebrate history and resilience. Red was adopted by the movement because it is symbolic of power, life and blood. Most skirts were made in virtual workshops hosted by the center.
The Medicine Wheel Ride also returned from a week-long motorcycle ride that kicked off in downtown Phoenix and went through Yuma to San Diego for International Female Ride Day. Around 120 riders joined them in San Diego on a 2-hour ride raising awareness for the issue.
The day began earlier in the afternoon with a virtual workshop presenting the findings of the missing and murdered Indigenous women study committee, which looked at the numbers of victims in Arizona, as well as the breakdown of the systems that make solving cases difficult. Departments are siloed and jurisdiction is in question with a lack of coordinated network, said Patty Dimitriou, a Medicine Wheel rider.
“They’re beginning to talk about what happens next,” Hibbeler said. “Now that the report is out, it’s got some really important next steps in there about what needs to happen. And a lot of it can actually happen through legislation that is passed.”
Hibbeler said educating the lawmakers on the issue is important for them to support legislation when it is presented by Native American lawmakers.
‘I’m still waiting for that phone call’: Families look for loved ones
Families of missing and murdered Indigenous people came to the Phoenix event with banners, framed photos, T-shirts and posters to raise awareness for their loved ones.
The family of Jamie Yazzie, a Navajo woman who went missing in June 2019 in Pinon, gathered around a large framed photo of her.
“The last phone call that we got from her was, ‘Talk to you girls later. I’ll call you in the morning or after I get off work,’” said Leona Yazzie, Jamie’s older sister.
Leona, their younger sister, Elaina Denny, and their aunt, Marilene James, said they only found out she was missing through a friend of Jamie’s a week later.
With the help of the Medicine Wheel Ride, they printed T-shirts, put up a billboard in Winslow and raised the reward for information that leads to Jamie Yazzie from $1,500 to $5,000. It was also recently doubled to $10,000.
Last week, Medicine Wheel rider Lavinia Yonnie tied a red ribbon to her motorcycle in honor of Jamie.
The family also took part in a documentary with other families of victims through a contact with the Medicine Wheel Ride.
Now, after so long, James said the case is beginning to move along, though it is difficult to get any response from police.
Leona said Jamie “was the nicest one out of all of us,” and the four of them would always sit at the kitchen table and joke around. Jamie was the one they would reach out to, to talk and laugh, James said.
Denny said she wants Jamie to come home to meet her youngest nephew, who was born three days before she went missing and whom she never got to meet.
“I’m still waiting for that phone call she said she was going to give me,” Leona said.
May 5 designated ‘Navajo Nation Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Awareness Day’
On Wednesday afternoon, Navajo tribal leaders were joined by representatives of the Albuquerque FBI Field Office at the Navajo Nation Veterans Memorial Park in Window Rock to sign the proclamation designating May 5 as “Navajo Nation Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Awareness Day.”
“Today, we extend our appreciation to our partners and volunteers, who work hard to gather data, provide testimonies, analyze data, and provide recommendations regarding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives crisis that affects each of our lives and tribal communities,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.
Albuquerque FBI Special Agent in Charge Raul Bujanda attended the proclamation and also met with local readers to review the roles of the FBI in working with federal, tribal, and state agencies for responding to reports of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“Setting aside a day to remember murdered and missing Native Americans is an opportunity for the FBI and our partners to reaffirm our commitment to bring justice to the victims and their loved ones,” Bujanda said.
The proclamation was read by First Lady Phefelia Nez before the signing. It cited figures from the National Crime Information Center that in 2016 over 5,700 Native American women and girls were classified as missing, while at the same time the U.S. Department of Justice missing person database reported only 116 missing Native American women and girls.
“This is a crisis, our missing and murdered Diné relatives,” Crotty said during the proclamation signing. “We know there are relatives that are still out there that are not accounted for.”
“Whether it’s 15 years, 30 years since a loved one has gone missing, the families still feel the loss and the pain,” she added. “It’s really through working together and through communication that we begin to heal.”
As part of the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives group, Crotty said they have hosted five community forums across the Navajo Nation and border towns.
It was through the forums that Crotty said they are seeing more families reporting. The group wants to be part of the solution so that no relatives are unaccounted for.
“We’re working on a data institute so that we can capture those experiences,” she said. “What we have been collecting is the stories and also to make sure when families are searching for the relative, they respect and honor that person’s identity.”
“We just try to create a safe environment that’s inclusive of everyone’s experience,” she added.
Reporter Shondiin Silversmith covers Indigenous people and communities in Arizona. Reach her at [email protected] and follow her Twitter @DiinSilversmith. Reach breaking news reporter Nienke Onneweer at [email protected] or on Twitter @thenienke.
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