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Sunday, November 27, 2022
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Walking for Ella Mae

Navajo woman walks from Arizona to D.C. to raise awareness of missing Natives

By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

There are more than 5,000 Native American women missing in the United States today. According to figures reported by the Native Womens Wilderness group based on data reported by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), that number was 5,712 cases of missing Native women across the United States and Alaska as of 2016.

According to numbers reported last year in an investigation conducted by U.S. News & World Report those numbers were at 5,295 for Native women, with 78 percent of those children or teens. For males the numbers were lower, but still high, with 4,276 missing men and boys reported, and around 69 percent of those minors.

But numbers could be even higher according to some experts, with the News & World Report investigation, and a March 2022 National Geographic story, finding that not only do local authorities often fail to follow up in a timely manner – sometimes assuming the missing are runaways or transients – but that a lack of clear jurisdiction and resources on reservation land exacerbates the problem.

Associated studies have also found that 84 percent of Indigenous women experience some form of violence in their lifetime, and that those living on reservations are killed at numbers as high as ten times the national murder rate. It can be shocking when you see the numbers laid out before you like that.  

None of these finds would come as a shock to Seraphine Warren though. The Navajo woman, whose own aunt went missing in 2021, set off in June, on foot, from Sweetwater, Arizona on a cross-country trek to Washington D.C. The purpose of her trip; to make sure her elected representatives couldn’t ignore the disappearance of her aunt, Ella Mae Begay, any longer. Along the way she’s encountered other families who’ve lost loved ones without a clue as to what happened to them, and helped keep their stories alive through her social media presence and by adding their names to her prayer staff.

Last Wednesday she was passing through Carter County, on a leg of her trip that took her from the area just west of Upper Tygart into Grayson for the night.

She said the problem was significant for many impoverished communities, but especially on reservation land.

She said she hoped to speak to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, as well as any other senator or representative who would be willing to meet with her.

“My aunt’s missing since last year off the Navajo reservation,” she explained. “She’s the reason why I started this walk, because I’m trying to keep her name out there and help push the investigation, to find some urgency, to locate her, and get justice for her.”

Her aunt, Ella Mae Begay, disappeared off the reservation, which brings its own set of problems associated with a lack of law enforcement personnel and funding – something that rings all too familiar with the residents of Appalachian communities like Carter County. But even when they leave the reservation to search for work, as many young men and women are forced to do, it can be easy for them to slip between the cracks of law enforcement efforts because in addition to living in low income areas, it might be some time before anyone even realizes they are missing.

“We don’t get a lot of resources on the reservation,” she explained. “Of all the (time) I’ve spent trying to look for my aunt, and do searches and stuff, I educated myself as far as knowing that we don’t have a search and rescue team that could give us a chance to continuously search for missing loved ones. So, right now I’m raising funds to get some equipment to help us continue our searches.”

But it’s difficult to know where to search when you may not even be sure where they’ve gone missing from, or how long.

“I really don’t know,” she said when asked about the circumstances of her aunt’s disappearance. “On the reservation we don’t have a lot of jobs. So, as soon as we graduate we’re forced to go and find jobs and take care of family. So, when we’re doing that, for our parents at home, that are still on the reservation, they’re proud of us. That’s what they want us to continue. They don’t want us to fall into alcoholism or any type of violence. So, for it to hit home, and my aunty to be missing… I didn’t understand how that could happen. What she might have known that she was keeping from us away from, as far as telling us to go work out there. I would say that we didn’t really visit with her except on certain occasions, like if there was a gathering we’d see her. Before she went missing I’d seen her a month before… but I don’t know what happened.”

June 15 of 2021 was the day that Ella Mae was reported missing and, one year later, the date when Warren set off on her long walk for justice.

On that walk, she said, she’s had a lot of time to think, especially about what could be done to improve safety. Especially for Native women.

While there are lots of changes she’d make, it all boils down to money and resources, and the lack of access to it.

“I feel like the barriers I’ve seen are we don’t have cameras. Like here, this store, it probably has cameras. We don’t have that in the area. It’s also the reason we don’t know which direction my aunt went,” Warren explained.

“Secondly,” she continued, “we don’t have enough law enforcement to cover the areas on the reservation, because it’s a big land. Third, I think they should help us with media coverage, and I would say they should have consistent searches done. Not just that one big (search) at the start.”

The immediate response from law enforcement, she said, was positive, but then it slacked off.

“They did have a search for two weeks, and then that was it,” she said. “There was no communication as far as what was going to happen next. I feel like if they were transparent about what was going to happen next, after, if they found (any info.)”

“Like, I’ve been telling officers, I don’t want direct details of what happened to my aunt,” she explained. She doesn’t want anything that might compromise an investigation. Just some indication of what is going on.

“Just a direction,” she continued. “Where do you want us to search, based off of what they have.”
If they found anything with DNA for instance, she said, she’d like the family to be informed.
“Those type of things, that would just give us comfort to know they are doing something,” she said.

Simple communication, she said, would go a long way to helping families deal with and process the trauma of having a missing loved one, even with the lack of other resources on Native land.

“The last time that I talked to law enforcement, all they told me was they were waiting on leads to see if something will pop up. It feels like us, as families out here, we’re the ones who do all the investigation. We’re the ones that are going out there, and bringing in people, but we don’t know, as far as following up on any of these leads, how far they go.”

She says they tell people with information to go talk with law enforcement, but then they don’t hear anything back from the police.

“That’s how I know that a lot of these leads are not (followed up),” she said.

While she can only speak directly to her own experience on the Navajo reservation, she said that pattern appears to hold for other families she’s encountered on her walk.

“Some of the stories that they tell me, it makes me think about my aunt’s case, and what maybe it involves – like certain situations they are dealing with, linked to my aunt’s case – like her being held hostage. Or, she’s somewhere and she’ll come back. Those are the things that I think about, or hope. Then, also, the thing that scares me the most is the consistent way they investigate and handle these cases. Of it going years and years being cold, and a lot of the cases getting closed without letting the family know.”

She said there are also cases of remains being found, but staying unidentified, which is yet another fear.

“I know when I called NamUs (the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), they said that they do have some remains there, but they just don’t have the funds to test them,” she explained.

That was one of the initial goals of her walk, to help them raise funds to identify those remains.

“That was my initial walk, when I was going to do this walk, was to try to raise funds to help them locate some of these loved ones. They just don’t have the funds to, and I guess that’s the case with a lot of our situations on the Navajo Nation. We don’t have a lot of funds for police structure even.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Warren and her walk, you can follow her on Twitter or Instagram at trailingellamae, and Facebook at Trailing Ellamae.

If you want to support her financially as she finishes up her walk you can donate at gofundme.com/f/bring-ella-mae-begay-home. She’s accepted meals and kindness from people along the way, and is donating any extra funds to a search and rescue team that used to be affiliated with tribal police, but is now operating independently to broaden their search efforts, including bringing in cadaver dogs to help with finding lost loved ones.

“Right now, the equipment that I’m asking to raise funds for… will help the Four Corners Search and Rescue team,” she said.

Further information on how to donate funds through Cash App, Venmo, PayPal, and Zelle is available through the Trailing Ellamae Facebook page.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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