Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Federal And State Officials Try To Better Understand Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women Cases

A woman in a red vest looks at a display of missing persons posters.
Courtesy of Meskee Yatsayte
Navajo Nation Missing Persons Awareness is a group that draws attention to missing persons cases. No one knows how many tribal members are missing, due to issues with data collection and sharing between agencies.

State and federal officials are launching new efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Utah, after a nationwide study called attention to the issue in 2018. 

The Urban Indian Health Institute surveyed documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and found that Utah ranked 8th for the highest number of cases in the U.S. 

Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, chairperson of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, said that finding didn’t surprise her.

“Every single tribal member could tell you that they have a story of someone being murdered and no one caring enough to investigate,” Borchardt-Slayton said. “Even after being reported, law enforcement didn’t necessarily provide any type of missing persons report.”

Now, state and federal leaders want to know why so many Indigenous women and girls go missing as well as how they can help.

Democratic State Rep. Angela Romero has created a task force to gather data on the issue and suggest policy improvements. It was approved earlier this year by the state Legislature but has since been delayed and defunded due to COVID-19. Still, Romero said she’s committed to getting the effort underway soon. 

“This is just the beginning,” Romero said, adding that she plans to ask the Legislature to extend the task force for another year. 

She said she is waiting on state legislative leaders to approve her appointments to the committee. They include Moroni Benally from Restoring Ancestral Winds, Kristina Groves from the Urban Indian Center, and the Paiute Tribal Chair Borchardt-Slayton. 

“I want to ensure that we’re including our sovereign nations, so that we’re having an open and honest conversation and looking at how we move forward,” Romero said. 

A recent hire for a newly created position in the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City will also focus on gathering information about missing and murdered indigneous person cases in Utah. It’s part of a nationwide effort coordinated by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to address the MMIW issue. 

“This position is designed to identify and fill gaps in the way things work,” said U.S. District Attorney John Huber. “How is crime reported? How are missing persons cases reported? And who responds to those?” 

Huber hired former FBI agent Brian Speelman to fill the position. Speelman started last week and will focus on helping tribal and local law enforcement agencies coordinate investigations, as well as collect data about missing and murdered Indigenous persons cases in the state.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Support our coverage of communities throughout Southern Utah.Your donation to KUER will help strengthen and expand our statewide reporting initiative, made possible in part by the national service organization Report for America.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.