Salt Lake resident Cassandra Begay says her family left the Navajo Nation to escape violence on the reservation. But she wasn’t able to leave the issue behind.
“My aunt was murdered in 2018, and then my cousin’s sister was murdered in May of this year,” she said at a legislative hearing yesterday. “The murders were very gruesome, and it’s very difficult to process sometimes.”
Begay was one of around 10 people who testified about missing and murdered Native relatives at a hearing yesterday for a bill that would create a task force to study the issue in Utah.
Rep. Angela Romero drafted the legislation. The Democrat from Salt Lake City passed a resolution last year establishing May 5 as “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and LGBT+ Awareness Day,” and she says the next step is taking action.
“With this particular issue I think many people see it as a crisis and want to address it. I have faith that this [bill] will get strong support,” she said.
American Indians experience the highest rate of homicide of all races in Utah, according to the state’s Department of Vital Records. But there’s little information about why the rate is so high.
Moroni Benally runs an organization aimed at reducing domestic violence in Native communities called Restoring Ancestral Winds. He also spoke in support of the legislation, citing the need for more information.
“This task force will ensure that we understand why this elevated risk exists for Native American women and girls and LGBT in both reservations and urban areas,” he said.
The task force proposed in the bill would include a variety of stakeholders and perspectives, including legislators, law enforcement agents, tribal representatives and a Native American survivor of gender-based violence.
“The goal is to acknowledge we have a problem, collect data, and make sure people are being identified correctly,” Romero said. “And then also identify some ways in which we can look at what the gaps are in our criminal justice system and social services.”
Republican Sen. David Hinkins is co-sponsoring the bill. His district includes San Juan County, which has a large population of Native residents. If it passes during the 2020 legislative session, the task force would be responsible for compiling a report before the next general session in 2021.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.