Inside the UNM Law School on Thursday evening, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland warmly greeted hundreds of people.
But outside, families representing 17 missing or murdered Indigenous people were crying in the rain, asking when their loved ones, or justice, would come to their home.
Haaland, a 2006 law school graduate, arrived to give a talk on civil rights as part of U.S. Senator Dennis Chavez Endowed Symposium.
She spoke about environmental racism, climate change, why her Indigenous perspective is vital, and she shared the story of her grandmother being forced onto a train near her home in Laguna Pueblo to a boarding school in Santa Fe.
Some of the families outside made their way to the law school lobby for the speech, and after it was over, they were offered the opportunity to ask: What is Haaland doing to push law enforcement? to advance these cases involving their family?
Justice for loved ones
The Cabinet Secretary highlighted the creation of the Missing and Murdered Persons Unit at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which hired 17 officers this year to track Indigenous cases.
She highlighted her work in Congress to strengthen the Violence Against Women Act that gives tribal law enforcement greater reach in pursuing cases.
Haaland even mentioned that she was active in some of the very first MMIWR outreach events in Albuquerque, “where there would be like four people showing up,” and raised the issue while in Congress and in her ministry capacity. inside.
All of this is respectfully appreciated by Vangie Randall-Shorty, but she said it does little to expedite the investigation into her son’s 2020 murder.
“I’m disappointed,” she said of Haaland’s response to her question.
Zachariah Juwaun Shorty’s case is being investigated by the FBI, which has a $5,000 reward for information about his death. Her mother said two members of the BIA unit created by Haaland visited her in January to learn more about the case and sort out the photos, but she has heard nothing since that interview.
“They came to my house and they gave me their time. They talked to me, listened to the story. They went to where he was found. They took pictures. And I was able to talk to them about it, ”she said in tears, but still insisting on the continuation. “Like, it’s been two years now.”
She asked Haaland for an update on what the BIA unit is doing to make progress in Shorty’s case. The secretary offered her sympathy but ultimately declined to respond, saying she did not have the file to reference.
“Because I don’t have specific details and I don’t have the case in front of me – I haven’t specifically spoken to the missing and killers unit investigators you’ve spoken with – I don’t I don’t have that kind of information,” Haaland said. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Shorty (Diné) says his son’s case is also bogged down in the routine and well-known issue of jurisdiction. He lived in Kirtland NM, was last seen in San Juan County, and his body was found in the Navajo Nation near the Nenahnezad Chapter House.
She entered the maze of law enforcement, contacting local police, the county sheriff and tribal police before being informed that the FBI had taken on the case. More than two years later, no arrests have been made.
“I need answers. I don’t want my son’s case closed,” Shorty told Haaland. “There are a lot of families here who come to you for help. We don’t know where to go.
Lela Mailman (Walker River Paiute) drove about three hours to Albuquerque from Farmington to ask Haaland why the police were so useless when she first called for help in locating her daughter Melanie James, who disappeared from the Four Corners community in 2014.
“Nobody seemed to take it seriously,” Mailman said. “We shouldn’t have to rely on statistics. It is reality. And there are many people out there who have the same reality. A lot of (police) will give us an attitude. They judge all those who are missing, all those who are murdered.
Although Haaland, again, could not give a specific answer to Mailman’s question about police bias, she stressed that the issue was important and would take time.
“It’s not a problem that has arisen in the last two generations,” she said. “It’s a 500-year-old problem, and it will take more than one law, or two months.”
Haaland left the event to applause, while the families returned outside, hoping to have a one-on-one moment with the secretary to show them photos of loved ones or ask her questions. Haaland exited through a back door and immediately drove off in an SUV as families held signs and asked for help.
“These are your people,” a family member of the group shouted as Haaland left. “They are your relatives.”