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Nez, missing, murdered women task force begin work


The first task of the New Mexico Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force begins tomorrow.

The New Mexico Legislature created the task force in March to investigate the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the state.

Phefelia Nez

The members were selected and appointed on Oct. 8. The task force’s first meeting will be at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque beginning at noon and concluding at 4:50 p.m. Friday.

On the agenda are several items that include taking a look at the Public Records Act, the expectations of the task force, and understanding the full extent of the missing and murdered Indigenous women issue in the state. The public will be given 30 minutes to share their ideas and provide their input on how the task force should proceed.

They have until November of 2021 to submit a final report to the governor.

Eight members were chosen by Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, including Navajo Nation first lady Phefelia Nez.

Nez, according to an Oct. 7 news release from the Navajo Nation president’s office, will help the task force in “assessing and determining how to increase state resources for reporting and identifying victims.”

Nez’s press officers said she would speak to the Navajo Times after this Friday’s task force meeting.

“Throughout our country, we hear far too many stories of families and victims who experience this traumatic epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls,” the news release quoted Nez. “Together through partnerships, we need to be proactive to protect our Indigenous women and girls.”

While the president’s office was pleased with her appointment, one woman whose sister went missing in 2017 was not so sure. Her sister’s remains were found about four months later.

Valya Cisco, the sister of Katczinzki Ariel Begay, said Nez’s appointment was a “disappointment” for her.

Begay was reported missing on July 8, 2017, and her remains were found in Querino Canyon, east of Sanders, Arizona, near Interstate 40. Her death was ruled a homicide and her case was turned over to the FBI.

“I feel like Nez doesn’t have any emotional connection to the epidemic,” Cisco said. “My sister Ariel went missing when now President (Jonathan) Nez was vice president. My late mother and I have only spoken to him.

“I only met first lady on one occasion and that was at the Missing Murdered Diné Relatives Forum in Shiprock,” she said.

A two-day forum called “Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives” was held in June in Shiprock. The intent of the forum was to begin collecting data on Diné people who were missing or murdered.
At the forum, Nez said the tribe needed a data and research institute to “address the problem” of the missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“An alarming number of Indigenous women and girls throughout the world disappear or fall victim to murder each year,” Nez was quoted in a June 28 news release.

Katczinzki Begay’s mother, Jacqueline Whitman, died seven months after her remains were found. Since then, Cisco has taken over the fight to find out who was responsible for her sister’s death.

“At first I was impressed that she had actually attended but then she began to speak and the first thing she did was make a mockery of the whole thing,” Cisco said.

Cisco said Nez said “most cases are runaway spouses” at the Shiprock forum. And regardless if it was true or not true, she added that families were “still missing their loved ones.”

“I felt that that statement made it clear that she only attended because she had to, anything she had to say after that I wasn’t interested in hearing,” Cisco said, adding that someone more dedicated should have been appointed.

Cisco recently said on Sept. 25, during a Missing Murdered Women Indigenous Women candlelight vigil at the Council Chamber, the FBI were stopping the investigation into her sister’s homicide because they had no other information that would help them continue.

Meskee Yatsayte, founder of the Facebook page called Navajo Nation Missing Persons Update, took it upon herself to help families when they had no one else to turn to for help. So she created the Facebook page.

When she started helping, Yatsayte began uncovering that some families have been missing loved ones for decades.

According to her research, dating back to 1956, 35 men and 20 women and girls are missing from the Navajo Nation. This year alone, she said she has helped create missing person flyers for 89 families, to date. Out of those, she said 55 of those families found their loved ones with 21 found deceased. Thirteen families are still missing their loved ones, she added.

Yatsayte said contrary to the movement of missing and murdered Indigenous women, there are more Native men missing. She said the missing person fliers she created this year were for 49 men and boys, and 34 fliers for women and girls.
According to the Urban Indian Health Institute’s “Our Bodies, Our Stories,” Native women were 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted, compared to the rest of the country.

Their research identified 506 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were either missing or murdered in 71 selected cities.

They also identified a lack of services, like an Amber Alert System, counseling and emergency services. Jurisdictional issues were also identified as a problem in helping law enforcement officials effectively investigate missing person reports.

Yatsayte said since she opened her heart to families missing their loved ones, she’s been hearing their cries and seeing their anguish, firsthand, sometimes, overwhelming her.

“We can help so much. I almost decide that maybe what we are doing is not good enough,” she said. “I don’t think we will ever be good enough. I feel defeated.”

The selection of Nez also disappointed her, like it did for Cisco.

“It seems it is going the wrong way,” she said. “It is too political. None of these task forces or groups are involving families until they have forums. It angers me that these families are being taken advantage of. I mean, why can’t they form search parties to search for these missing loved ones?”

Yatsayte said she frequently goes out to search for missing people, but the daunting task can become too much for one person.

“I can’t do it alone. Now that my husband started working on Fridays, I can’t search. It drives me crazy,” she said.

The Navajo Times reached out to Phefelia Nez, asking for comment. Through her scheduler, she said she would speak to the Navajo Times on Friday, after the meeting.

Along with Nez, Beata Tsosie-Pena, Sharen Velarde, Bernalyn Via, Matthew Strand, Linda Son-Stone and an unknown person who was not named and who is a survivor of violence, as well as having a lost one, will immediately begin working with tribal governments, tribal police departments and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Phefelia Nez is originally from Keams Canyon, Arizona, and was raised in Big Mountain, Arizona. She is Tábaahá, born for T?’ízí?ání. Her maternal grandfathers are Naakai Diné’é’, and her paternal grandfathers are Naakai Diné’é’.

About The Author

Donovan Quintero

"Dii, Diné bi Naaltsoos wolyéhíígíí, ninaaltsoos át'é. Nihi cheii dóó nihi másání ádaaní: Nihi Diné Bizaad bił ninhi't'eelyá áádóó t'áá háadida nihizaad nihił ch'aawóle'lágo. Nihi bee haz'áanii at'é, nihisin at'é, nihi hózhǫ́ǫ́jí at'é, nihi 'ach'ą́ą́h naagééh at'é. Dilkǫǫho saad bee yájíłti', k'ídahoneezláo saad bee yájíłti', ą́ą́ chánahgo saad bee yájíłti', diits'a'go saad bee yájíłti', nabik'íyájíłti' baa yájíłti', bich'į' yájíłti', hach'į' yándaałti', diné k'ehgo bik'izhdiitįįh. This is the belief I do my best to follow when I am writing Diné-related stories and photographing our events, games and news. Ahxéhee', shik'éí dóó shidine'é." - Donovan Quintero, an award-winning Diné journalist, served as a photographer, reporter and as assistant editor of the Navajo Times until March 17, 2023.


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