Movement to highlight missing Native women expands to males

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

TUBA CITY, Ariz. (AP) — Margaret Bitsue’s days are filled with prayer: that her son has a clear mind and that he remembers home, a traditional Navajo hogan at the end of a dirt road where a faded yellow ribbon hanging from the cedar trees points to her agony.

Bitsue hasn’t seen or heard from Brandon Lee Sandoval, the youngest of her four children, in more than two years. Wearing blue jeans, a black shirt and work boots, he left the home in northeastern Arizona before sunrise Sept. 3, 2017, saying he was going to see friends in Phoenix and would be back.

“I spend most of my days looking down the road expecting him to come up,” Bitsue says.

The woman’s words are soft but capture a room at a government center on the Navajo Nation where people are gathered to talk not about women and girls who have gone missing or been killed, but men and boys. It’s part of a growing effort to expand a movement focused on Native American women, who face some of the nation’s highest rates of homicide, sexual violence and domestic abuse.

In Billings, Montana, last year, Reno Charette asked people to wear red and line the rim of sandstone rocks overlooking the city. They brought posters of men, women and children who are missing, and broadened the name of the local movement to Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.

“All of us, our general community members, we’re learning more and more about it, so I appreciate the evolution,” said Charette, a member of the Crow Tribe.

Late last year, the Trump administration announced it would dedicate more resources to all missing and slain Native Americans and Alaska Natives. A presidential task force that will look at ways to solve new and cold cases is scheduled to meet for the first time Wednesday in Washington.

“We did not want to leave any victim group out,” said Trent Shores, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, who is Choctaw and on the task force.

Shores said the Justice Department looked at two databases, both of which had more Native American and Alaska Native males listed as missing than females.

No one knows exactly how many Native Americans are missing because some cases go unreported, others aren’t documented, and there isn’t a specific government database tracking the cases, an Associated Press investigation in 2018 found.

The Justice Department also looked at a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice that shows Native men are 1.3 times more likely to experience violence than non-Hispanic, white men. It doesn’t specifically address deaths and disappearances, but federal officials say it points to underlying causes such as stalking, and physical and sexual violence, and a lack of shelters and treatment centers on tribal land.

Shores said an upcoming Justice Department analysis of federal databases and its own data collection process will help officials get a better sense of the problem’s scope so they can tailor response plans to tribes.