Tuesday, January 31

‘People are angry’: US families feel let down by Indigenous missing unit | Native Americans

ORne month after Ranelle Rose Bennett disappeared, agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services’ newly created missing and murdered unit (MMU) arrived at her house on the Navajo Reservation.

Her mother, Rose Yazzie, had initially reported the 33-year-old missing to Navajo Nation police after Bennett hadn’t shown up to her daughter’s 10th birthday party in June 2021 but said it took over a week for an officer to even file a missing report.

So, when the federal agents appeared, she said she remembers feeling hopeful that this could be the turning point for finally finding her daughter. They searched the house, she recalls, removing some things for evidence, and then promised to be in touch.

For three long months she waited.

In October, with still no updates, Yazzie called one of the agents. She said he told her he was waiting on the Navajo Nation police before he could move forward with the investigation. Frustrated, Yazzie called the Navajo Nation police, but she said they told her they were waiting on the MMU to get back to them. The Navajo Nation Police did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Ranelle Rose Bennett. Photograph: Courtesy of her sister, Jeanelle Bennett

“They could have found something by now, instead of just back and forth,” she said. “They’re probably not even doing anything.”

One year after the US Department of the Interior announced it was launching a new investigative unit to prioritize the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans, at least nine Indigenous families have watched jurisdictional issues and miscommunication hamper efforts by the unit to investigate their relatives’ cases , or been met with months of silence when requesting an investigation or even a 10-minute phone call with agents, records and interviews show.

Announced by Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in US history, the unit was expected to investigate missing and murdered cases, building on the work by Operation Lady Justice, a presidential taskforce launched in 2019 that was criticized by some as being vague and uninformed . The unit was also designed to increase overall collaboration with such agencies as the FBI forensic laboratory and the US Marshals missing child unit.

In a statement last year, Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said the MMU “will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families” .

In 2021, the National Crime Information Center listed over 9,500 Indigenous people as missing, with 1,554 of those cases still active by the end of the year. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that homicide was the third leading cause of death for Native females ages one to 19 years old, and the sixth for those ages 20 to 44.

But at the time of publication, the MMU website featured 11 casesonly one of which was a homicide victim.

Darlene Gomez, an attorney who represents the Bennett family along with a number of other Indigenous families with a missing or murdered relative, said none have received help from the unit. She said she has reached out to the unit for help on three cases.

“Those people are angry,” she said. “If you ask them, they’ll tell you if they could give this unit an F, they would give them an F,” she said. “Other people you talk to, other families that have cases in the media, they don’t even know about this unit.”

She explained that she doesn’t blame the individual investigators, but rather the policies and procedures put in place by politicians with little understanding of the jurisdictional issues at play.

“There’s nothing in statute [that] says they shall exist or shall take over these cases,” she said. “You’re just depending on that sovereign nation to work with you together to implement these policies that the BIA murdered missing unit has implemented on paper.”

She added: “It looks good on paper. It was good-willed. It was a great idea but the reality of it, they didn’t realize the true reality.”

Braven Glenn, a Crow citizen, had just turned 17 years old when he died following a high-speed chase with the Crow tribal police force in November 2020, according to Mary Kathryn Nagle, a lawyer representing the family.

Glen Old Bull.
Brave Glenn. Photograph: Courtesy of his mother, Blossom Old Bull

The Montana state medical examiner ruled his death an accident, stating that it was the result of Glenn colliding with a train after “attempting to evade police”. But the family said it hadn’t received any details about why he was chased onto a train track, as the police force shut down just after Glenn’s death.

Glenn’s brother, Gavin Old Bull, said he traveled to the scene the morning after the crash and noticed two additional tire tracks intertwined with his brother’s vehicle.

“To me, it felt like they pushed him off the road and tried to stop him and pushed him on to the tracks… Because right before it goes on the [train] tracks, their tracks stop and they back out and leave,” he said.

Witnesses to the aftermath of the crash have since come forward to say there were no ambulances on scene and that Glenn was crying out for help as law enforcement officers stood by. The Guardian made several attempts to contact the Crow tribe for comment.

Nagle sent a letter to the MMU on 6 December 2021 requesting that they investigate Glenn’s death. In an email shared with the Guardian, an agent from the unit responded one month later, saying they had decided to refer the case to the FBI in Billings, Montana, since “Color of Law/Civil Rights investigations fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI . That would include deaths caused by law enforcement action.”

But when Nagle followed up with the FBI, she said an agent told her they did not have a case on Glenn and did not receive a case file from the MMU. The FBI declined to comment, saying they “cannot confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.”

“I thought that’s what they were here for,” said Blossom Old Bull, Glenn’s mother. “I thought that’s why they developed this, it was for them to listen to us. And it’s like we’re still being ignored.”

Nagle, who specializes in federal Indian law and appellate litigation, has contacted the MMU about five additional cases that she said haven’t received a thorough investigation by the associated law enforcement agency. But after dozens of emails, she said the MMU had yet to agree to formally investigate any of them.

“Our assumption was if we go to people who care deeply about this issue they’ll do something about it,” she said. “That hasn’t been the case so far, but we’re still hopeful, I guess.”

The impact the unit has had over its inaugural year is difficult to pinpoint. When how many cases the agency has solved or to detail the work that has been done or to respond to the issues asked families have described facing with the unit, The Guardian received no response.

Zachariah Shorty.
Zachariah Shorty. Photograph: Courtesy of his mother, Vangie Randall-Shorty

However, it’s clear it has made a difference for Vangie Randall-Shorty, whose 23-year-old son Zachariah Shorty was shot to death in July 2020 on the Navajo reservation.

For months, she said she had felt like the investigation, handled by the FBI and Navajo Nation, was stalled. Then, in February, she approached an MMU unit chief, during a missing and murdered Indigenous women’s walk at the New Mexico state capitol.

She said a week later he had assigned an agent. Days later she was talking with the agent and in early March he traveled out to her home and spent hours asking her about her son.

“Having the missing and murdered unit take the time to reach out, I’m grateful, I’m thankful,” she said. “It makes me feel like, not only myself, but Zachariah, makes me feel like, you know, he was somebody and they understand that part of it.”

But, she said, the agent told her that it was not a guarantee that the MMU will be able to assist with the case, as it was up to the FBI and Navajo Nation. The status of her son’s case is unclear, and as of publication had yet to be featured on the unit’s website.

For nine long months, Keith Gourneau, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, has waited for a meeting with the MMU.

In 2001, his oldest son, Clint James Gourneau was 17 years old when he died after Keith Gourneau said he and his cousin were pushed down an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in North Dakota on land that is now trust property of the Turtle Mountain Tribe .

Dustin Delonais, his cousin who was 15 years old at the time, survived the fall and told the Guardian he still remembers being chased to the third floor of the abandoned building by three men and finding a shoe print on the back of his shirt when he woke up. And yet, Keith Gourneau and Delonais said the incident had never been investigated.

Seventeen years later, Gourneau found his younger son, Kyle Delonais, a 27-year-old college student and father of two, outside his home on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in a parked car, shot in the head. Gourneau said he remembered that despite Delonais lying all the way back in his seat, the gun was inexplicably resting on his lap. His death of him was ruled a suicide, according to an autopsy. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians did not respond to requests for comment.

Nagle, who represents Gourneau’s family, said she and her colleagues first contacted the MMU, requesting they look into Keith’s sons’ cases in late June 2021. She received emails in July saying they would be in touch, and then despite following up again on 5 January said she hadn’t heard anything since.

“I want justice, that’s all, then I can live with it,” said Gourneau. “But other than that, I cannot live with this. It’s tearing me apart inside.”

Kyle Delonais and Clint Gourneau.
Kyle Delonais and Clint Gourneau. Photograph: Courtesy of their father, Keith Gourneau

The problem, according to Abigail Echo-Hawk, enrolled citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, is the lack of transparency on the criteria used when determining which cases the MMU will investigate as well as not enough cross -collaboration and resources.

“They’re doing the best they can with what they have,” she said. Is it enough? No. Do I wish they could do more? 100%. But they’re actually trying.”

Last April, Haaland said during a hearing on Joe Biden’s 2022 interior department budget request that the missing and murdered unit would have a $6m budget, $5m more than Operation Lady Justice.

“I feel like with the added budget and the leadership of the justice services, that we’ll be able to make some inroads and really make a difference for communities across the country,” she said.

Bennett is one of the cases that, on the surface, the unit seems to be focusing its resources on. Her case of her was assigned to an agent, and her image of her has been featured on the unit’s website.

Yet nine months after her disappearance, the same issues her mother initially faced appear to still be keeping the MMU’s case from moving forward.

In emails shared with the Guardian by Gomez, the attorney representing her family, in late January the Navajo chief of police, Daryl Noon, confirmed that the case was referred to the MMU and that the unit had conducted an investigation but had yet to share its findings.

However, two months later, when Gomez spoke with a regional agent, she said he told her they were waiting for the go-ahead from the tribe’s president.

Yazzie, Bennett’s mother, said she had lost all hope that the unit will step in.

“I don’t know where to turn or where to look or even who to ask about her again.”


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