Shondiin Silversmith

The City of Tucson is the first city in the nation to launch its own Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls task force, which will work on ways to address the crisis within the city, greater Pima County and nearby tribal nations.

Tucson has the fourth-highest MMIWG rate in the country, and the state of Arizona has the third-highest rate, according to a report by Urban Indian Health Institute.

“The numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women in this community is not new, but our prioritization of it is,” Indivisible Tohono Co-Chair April Ignacio said.

Community advocates, tribal leaders and city officials gathered near downtown Tucson on May 5 to acknowledge the importance of creating a task force for the city, county and tribes.

“This is the bare minimum that we can do, and it’s not enough,” Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Adelita Grijalva said. “We have to let people know that there is a problem, and we have to be part of a solution to solving it.”

The Pima County Board of Supervisors also issued a proclamation during its May 2 meeting to recognize May 5 as “a day of awareness of the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people.”

During the meeting, Indivisible Tohono and community members stood before the board holding photos of Indigenous women lost due to the MMIWG crisis.

Standing in front of the board, Ignacio said they want to emphasize how important it is to the families and the communities for officials to acknowledge that Tucson has a missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis.

“Without acknowledging it is to perpetuate the violence that continues in our communities,” she said.

City and county officials acknowledged that the work they will do toward MMIWG has largely been thanks to the grassroots efforts by Indigenous women who have spearheaded the effort to raise awareness about the crisis within their communities.

“We know that indigenous women in our community have been leading on this issue, and for years, their demands for answers, for accountability, for solutions have been unaddressed by municipal, county, and state officials,” said Tucson Council Member Lane Santa Cruz. “It’s our turn as the city of Tucson and Pima County to take swift and urgent action to address the crisis within our region.”

The task force was announced in coordination with the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, making Tucson the first known municipality to develop a task force.

“Within the City of Tucson and Pima County, the task force will bring together experts from law enforcement, social services, healthcare, and other relevant fields to coordinate efforts and develop comprehensive strategies to prevent and respond to cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” said Charlene Mendoza, chief of staff for Mayor Regina Romero.

Mendoza said they understand that data is limited, lacks accuracy, and Indigenous women are often misidentified. She said she hopes that the task force will give city leaders some idea of the true impact of the MMIWG crisis, resulting in system and policy changes needed to collect correct and accurate data.

“We need this to ensure that resources and services are being directed to exactly where they are needed most,” she said. “The time is now to make meaningful changes in our data collection, policy, training, and services.”

For Ignacio, who serves on the state MMIWG task force that Gov. Katie Hobbs established in March, seeing a city take steps to develop a localized task force is a big deal for Indigenous communities.

Ignacio is Tohono O’odham and she has been advocating for MMIWG within Indian Country for years. She said she knows more Indigenous people want to get involved in some way.

“The first step is just showing up,” Ignacio said. “Just showing up and making your presence known has an effect on the leaders of your community.”

And that’s what Ignacio has been doing. She has responded to calls for action on MMIWG, including when legislation was approved in 2019 establishing the state’s first MMIWG study committee.

Ignacio said she needs the Indigenous communities to see that they can make a difference just by showing up, because the change happening now was only possible through grassroots efforts.

“We don’t have to continue to marinate in our grief,” she added. “We can take steps forward to be a beacon of hope and to keep these family members in our memories.”

Community members hold photos of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls from the Tohono O’odham Nation in remembrance on the National Day of Awareness on May 5, 2023. (Antonio Ramirez/City of Tucson)
Community members hold photos of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls from the Tohono O’odham Nation in remembrance on the National Day of Awareness on May 5, 2023. (Antonio Ramirez/City of Tucson)

Fellow Indivisible Tohono Member Elayne Gregg, from the Tohono O’odham Nation, spoke during the announcement, commending the city and counties for publicly acknowledging that this type of violence is happening to Indigenous women and girls.

Gregg had advocated for MMIWG awareness for years and has been at the forefront alongside Indivisible Tohono of some of the major pushes for change in Arizona, including when the legislature passed House Bill 2570 in 2019 to establish the state’s first MMIWG study committee.

Gregg speaks out in honor of the Indigenous women and girls lost within her community, but also for her late daughter Rhia Danae Almeida, who was seven years old when she was murdered in Ajo in 2009.

“What I have learned through my pain, through my silence, is that I still have a voice and that we have a voice,” Gregg said. “I have found support and love through sharing my grief.”

Gregg has shared her experience among others many times in support of efforts to address the MMIWG crisis in Arizona. One point she emphasized is that the individual responsible for what happened to her daughter was off tribal land. She did get help and justice in her daughter’s case, but she knows it would have been different if it did happen in her homeland, the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“If you were to look at the victim services that our people on our tribal lands get, you could see that they are severely insufficient,” Gregg said. “This is why it is so important to speak up and demand help.”

Anna Harper-Guerrero, the executive vice president & chief strategy officer for EMERGE Center Against Domestic Abuse, attended the task force announcement. She commended Indivisible Tohono’s work for MMIWG and Gregg for her bravery in sharing her story.

Harper-Guerrero pointed out a few key factors that contributed to the MMIWG crisis, including the lack of victim services available for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence.

“Our lack of allocation of resources has only served to make them more invisible and to promote the erasure of the many women and girls whose faces you see here today,” she said. “We are not equipped to provide the level of support that families need.”

Like many Indigenous community advocates for MMIWG, Harper-Guerrero pointed out that the violence against Indigenous women is not new for these communities, and it is linked to violence in the homes and romantic relationships.

“The number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in our community is directly tied to the unaddressed prevalence of domestic violence and sexual violence in our community,” Harper-Guerrero said. “It has deep origins in the embedded belief systems that tell us that female bodies have less value, that the dehumanization and sexualization of women and girls is acceptable.”

Harper-Guerrero added that the only way to begin a pathway to healing for Indigenous communities is by first acknowledging that historical trauma, which is the origin of this violence.

“We know that when this land was taken, sexual violence was the tool that was used against women and girls to take these lands, and it persists today,” she said.

More details about the task force will be announced by the Mayor’s Office and taken to the Tucson City Council for an official vote.