Hub Binion Williamson, 34, was last seen in April near Hardin, Montana, about 12 miles away from his home on the Crow Indian Reservation. It was a trip he made almost daily, said his cousin Rachel Reddog. Along the way, she said he stopped at his aunt’s house for a drink of water. After that, he vanished without a trace, leaving his family devastated.
“It’s like having a huge splinter in your foot,” Reddog said. “Things just aren’t the same.”
Williamson is one of thousands of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) men and boys who are missing or murdered in the U.S. but capture little media attention in the shadow of the greater campaign seeking justice for missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW).
Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, steps in where tribal police have failed to locate the missing.
“I can tell you from what I’ve witnessed personally, that men are murdered and missing more than the women,” she said. “But not all their deaths are reported.”
Medical examiners, she explained, trying to avoid the burdensome paperwork required in homicide cases, may note the cause of death as “overdose” or “alcohol-related” for both men and women.
Williamson’s cousin Frankie Backbone, a member of the Crow Nation, cites the example of a another missing relative, his 14-year-old niece, Henny Scott, who disappeared in December 2018 and was later found dead.
“She had a broken nose and bruises all over her body, but the county coroner said she died from ‘exposure,’” he said.
According to a 2008 Department of Health and Human Services study, medical examiners may also misclassify the deceased as “white,” especially if the victim is of mixed race.
Several federal agencies collect homicide data, but reporting is mostly voluntary. Federal law requires police to report all missing juveniles to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) but not adults.
Currently, only 47 tribes have access to NCIC.
In 2018, the FBI reported more than 9,900 adult and juvenile Native Americans were missing, but did not break them down by gender.
A better-known database is the Justice Department’s (DOJ) National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) that tracks missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons and allows police, medical examiners and families of the missing to post, search and update cases at no charge. But participation is voluntary, and its data is also incomplete.
As of late September 2019, NaMus listed 404 missing Native Americans — 250 males and 154 females.
Meskee Yatsayte, a Navajo citizen who tracks and shares information on the missing and murdered on Facebook, believes these numbers represent the tip of the iceberg.
“Everybody is talking about MMIW, and that’s good. But our men and boys are missing and murdered in way higher in numbers,” Yatsayte said. “In the Navajo Nation alone, 57 persons are currently missing. Thirty-seven of them are men.”
‘They’ll be back’
So, why aren’t indigenous men getting more attention?
Yellowbird-Chase and Yatsayte both point to gender stereotypes. Women are perceived as more vulnerable; men as more able to take care of themselves. And because men commit most of the violence against women, families and law enforcement fail to recognize that men, too, are vulnerable.
“I also think they focus more on the women because when that monthly check comes and she is not there to sign it — and the kids are having to be tended for by another family caregiver — well, then, they’re looking for the mother right away,” said Yellowbird-Chase.
Yatsayte believes police ignore cases in which men go missing.
“A lot of our indigenous brothers in the Navajo Nation have alcohol and drug problems,” she said. “You know, it’s kind of routine for them to take off for a couple days, go party with their friends in the border towns.”
Knowing this, families may not report the missing for days, even weeks.
“And when they finally do, the police say, ‘Oh, they’ll be back,’” Yatsayte said.
Mona Sespe, a member of the Pala Band of Mission Indians in California, knows this firsthand. Ten years ago, her 60-year-old cousin Joseph Scott went missing.
“I thought he was down in his trailer,” Sespe said. “He’d come up to eat, and I’d do his wash and stuff. “He hadn’t come up for like a couple days, so I walked down there and called to him, knocked on the trailer door, and no answer.”
She called tribal police, who refused to break open the trailer door. Only after she complained to the tribal chairman did lawmakers act. The trailer was empty. Williamson has not been heard from since.
Reddog cites police apathy, not only in the case of her cousin Hub, but another cousin, Robert “Baby” Garrett, who went missing nearly six years ago.
“Tribal police didn’t know my cousins personally, and it feels like we were almost laughed at for trying so hard to find them,” she said. This indifference has forced her family to organize their own search parties.
“Law enforcement, they showed up once for the first search and rescue,” Reddog said. “They gave us some maps, and that was it.”
Police stretched thin
More than 200 police departments operate in Indian Country, ranging in size from a single officer to more than 200. Complex jurisdictional rules mean that some crimes fall under state, local or federal jurisdiction, and some fall through the cracks.
Most tribal police forces are limited in resources and manpower, and some are responsible for reservations the size of small U.S. states.
This means police must pick and choose which cases deserve their attention: When a 94-year-old citizen of the Navajo Nation disappeared from his front yard in Fort Defiance, Arizona, tribal police searched the desert with helicopters.
“But if there’s no reason to believe that the person is in danger, if they don’t have a disability, they’re not a child, they’re not elderly, helicopters and search parties usually don’t happen,” said Yatsayte.
A number of bills have been introduced that would address these issues:
Savanna’s Act would improve tribal access to national databases and require DOJ to develop national guidelines for handling missing and murdered Native Americans and report statistics annually to Congress.
The Bridging Agency Data Gaps & Ensuring Safety (BADGES) for Native Communities Act would improve sharing of law enforcement agency data and boost officer recruitment and retention.
The Not Invisible Act of 2019 would require the DOJ to allocate more resources toward missing and murdered Native Americans based on input from local, tribal and federal leaders.
Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a Democrat from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, has introduced amendments to the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA), which expired in February and is pending reauthorization, that would provide victim advocate services to urban Indians.
In the interim, advocates are calling on the MMIW movement to change their acronym to MMIR — “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.”