Shondiin Silversmith

(Arizona Mirror) Five empty chairs sat at the front of the Not Invisible Act Commission hearing, each wrapped in a shawl, blanket or quilt representing a different group of individuals impacted by human trafficking or with a loved one who is missing or murdered.

“We want to allow space for representing our relatives,” commission member Grace Bulltail said, noting the traditions in many Indigenous families to always preserve a space for absent loved ones.

“We’re doing that to honor our loved ones,” Bulltail said, explaining that, by putting the chairs there, the commission hearing was holding space for them.

The chair wrapped in a red shawl with white and yellow handprints honored the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The chair wrapped in a red, orange, bridge, and white Native design shawl with a black blazer draped over it was to honor the missing and murdered Indigenous men and boys.

Another chair was wrapped in a light blue, white and purple quilt. Pinned to the quilt was a picture of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike, a Navajo girl who was abducted and killed on the Navajo Nation in 2016. This chair honored Indigenous children.

The chair wrapped in a maroon shawl with floral designs honored the LGBTQI and two-spirit Indigenous community. The chair wrapped in a brown Pendleton honored Indigenous veterans.

The Not Invisible Act Commission, organized by the U.S. Department of the Interior,  held a public hearing at the Twin Arrows Casino near Flagstaff on May 9 to hear testimony and recommendations from victims and families impacted by human trafficking and the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis. The commission also heard from local tribal leaders and advocates.

The Not Invisible Act was passed into law in October 2020, establishing the commission as a cross-jurisdictional advisory committee of federal and non-federal members, including law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service providers, family members of missing and murdered individuals, and survivors.

The commission is developing recommendations through the work of six subcommittees focused on improving intergovernmental coordination and establishing best practices for state, tribal and federal law enforcement to bolster resources for survivors and victim’s families and combating the epidemic of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous people.

The meeting at Twin Arrows was the commission’s third public hearing. This summer, it has four more planned in Minnesota, northern California, New Mexico and Montana. The hearings are being held in communities impacted most by the MMIP crisis.

Hearing victim testimonies

Commissioners heard emotional testimony from Seraphine Warren and Pamela Foster as they shared their experiences of losing a loved one and advocated for change.

Warren is the niece of Ella Mae Begay, a Navajo woman who went missing from her home in Sweetwater, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation on June 15, 2021. Warren continued to advocate for not only her aunt but Indigenous people.

“Advocating for my aunt has been an emotional experience,” Warren said. She’s held prayer walks, visited with state, tribal, and federal officials, and advocated for other families impacted by MMIP.

Foster is the mother of Mike, the 11-year-old Navajo girl abducted and killed on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico in 2016. Foster has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts for Indigenous children and people since she lost her daughter.

“I miss my daughter every single day,” Foster said. “I became a voice for my daughter the moment I received word that her life was taken from her.”

Warren shared her testimony first. Speaking through tears, but supported by Foster and the victim service advocates in attendance, she told her aunt’s story.

“I know it wasn’t her legacy to be stolen or to be murdered,” Warren said. “Just because she isn’t here doesn’t mean she can’t be part of change.”

Warren shared with the commission how her aunt was a soft-spoken woman, but she was very aware of her surroundings and never put herself in dangerous situations.

Begay is still missing, but there have been developments in her case. In March, Preston Henry Tolth, 23, of New Mexico, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Phoenix for assault and carjacking.

The indictment alleges that, on June 15, 2021, Tolth assaulted Begay, resulting in serious bodily injury, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tolth then took her Ford F-150 pickup truck and drove it from Arizona to New Mexico with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to Begay.

Warren said during Tolth’s arraignment hearing on April 7 in Flagstaff that she heard details about the night her aunt went missing that she was not ready for.

Warren, in tears, told the commission that Tolth told federal agents that he “snapped” and struck her in the face multiple times, causing her to bleed from the nose and mouth.

Tolth told authorities that he wasn’t sure if she was dead, Warren said, and when he drove away, he said he regretted hitting her, since all he wanted was the truck.

Tolth is being held in custody and is expected to go to trial later in May.

When it was Foster’s turn to share her experience, she talked about how the system failed when her children were missing in 2016. She said that May 1 to May 6 is a nightmare for her every year because she relives what happened to her children yearly.

“The whole event turned my life upside down,” Foster said.

On the afternoon of May 2, 2016, Ashlynne Mike and her 9-year-old brother, Ian Mike, didn’t make it home from school. When they got off the school bus in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, a predator tricked them into getting into his van by promising them a ride home.

Hours later, passersby found Ian Mike wandering alone in the area. Police located Ashlynne Mike’s body on May 3, 2016, and discovered she had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and bludgeoned repeatedly with a tire iron.

Foster talked about the hours from when her children disappeared to when they found her daughter; she ran into countless obstacles that left them without support.

“It was very hard to sit there and know that there was no resources available for my children,” Foster said. “I absolutely had nothing.”

She said local law enforcement was not adequately trained to handle child abductions. There was no clear communication between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Instead of searching for her children, Foster said they were trying to figure out exactly what protocols were needed to start looking.

“Time was lost,” Foster said, and they did not send out an AMBER Alert until the following day. Foster recalled the alert went out at 2 a.m., and she said that helped no one because not many people were awake then.

She remembers hearing officers from the neighboring jurisdictions tell her they couldn’t go out to look for her daughter until they were given the clearance to do so by the Navajo Nation Police Department. Foster said it frustrated her how long it took for that to happen.

Foster said when they found her daughter, lying alone in the desert in Shiprock, that was a phone call she didn’t want to hear.

“I had to hear that phone call,” Foster said through tears. “There’s no words to describe that.”

Foster said the anger and hurt about what happened to Ashlynne led her to be a voice for her daughter.

“I promised her I would do something for all of our other Indigenous children,” Foster said. “To give them the protection that they need so they don’t go through what I did.”

Foster has led many grassroots efforts to support Indigenous children, including advocating and petitioning for the AMBER Alert system to include Indian Country.

Foster said she wanted to change, and she knew the justice system in Indian Country needed to be updated, so she focused her efforts on the AMBER Alert system. Her advocacy resulted in the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2018, which makes tribes eligible for AMBER Alert grants to integrate into state and regional AMBER Alert communication plans.

Foster said she knows the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert is a considerable part of the work being put into the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis.

“Every day, it’s not just our adult relatives that go missing, but we have many indigenous children that go missing,” Foster said. “I continued my work, and I continued to be a voice for our children and for the families.”

“I always say that I’ve never received justice for what happened to my daughter because nothing can bring her back,” Foster said. “There will never be justice, but we can learn how to move forward in changing laws to make things better for our people.”

Recommendations from victims, advocates

The goal of the hearing was for the commissioners to listen and hear recommendations on the best course of action for the MMIP crisis. Commissioners will use the suggestions to develop their final report for the Department of Interior.

Foster’s big recommendation was not only geared at the commissioners, but other attendees of the hearing. She encouraged them to tell their tribal leaders to receive the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act training.

“It is free,” she said, adding that it is a vital program for Indigenous communities because it will train police officers and social workers from the tribe.

Since tribes are sovereign nations, Foster said the Department of Justice could not go on to tribal land and make agencies take the training. Instead, it has to be requested.

“Have your tribal leaders request this training for your community because the children are our next generation,” Foster said. “There’s still a lot of tribes that need to be trained.”

When Warren was finished sharing her aunt’s story, she laid out her recommendations, including how a national assessment should be conducted on how missing people investigations are performed on a state, tribal and federal level.

“Transparency and swift action is key,” Warren said, which means that when a person is missing, law enforcement should immediately inform all jurisdictions and issue press releases to media channels to inform the public.

“Family members need to be regularly and constantly updated with the progress of the investigation,” Warren said, and how families should be prioritized if any remains are found in any jurisdiction.

Some of the other recommendations Warren pointed out included allowing families to hire private investigators, providing them access to case files, supporting families in organizing their task force, providing families with constant and reliable access to grief counseling services, medical attention, financial and legal assistance, and safe housing if needed.