COLORADO SPRINGS — According to a study from the Urban Indian Health Institute, there were 5,712 missing Indigenous women and girls reported to the National Crime Information Center by 2016. At that time, the US Department of Justice's federal missing persons database, NamUs, had recorded 116 cases.
Discrepancies in data make it impossible to know how many Indigenous people are missing or murdered in America every year.
Monycka Snowbird, the program director of Haseya Advocate Program, said Indigenous men and women who disappear "do not have the same sort of media coverage, we don't have the same law enforcement response, we don't have the same search and rescue response... It just does not happen for women of color, and specifically, Indigenous women," said Snowbird.
Haseya Advocate Program is the only urban response in Colorado for Indigenous survivors of any gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, or stalking. "Denver doesn't have these programs. Pueblo doesn't have these types of programs. They have domestic violence programs, but none that are Indigenous specific," said Snowbird.
"In no way are we trying to use a tragedy that has taken place for another family or the loss of another young woman as a platform for bringing up issues regarding our people. That's not what anyone's intent is. It just demonstrates that we are capable as a society of handling it correctly and handling it appropriately and making it a priority. So, we need to have that same urgency in our responses to all people who come up missing."
Snowbird estimated there are around 40 known missing or murdered Indigenous people in Colorado, dating back to the 1980s. However, the public attention given to their cases is dwarfed by the response when a white person disappears, said Snowbird. "Indigenous women are considered invisible... They see us as mascots, they see us as stereotypes, and they don't really realize that we are still here. There are 574 sovereign nations. According to the recent census, there are close to 100,000 Indigenous people in the state of Colorado... They assume if we don't present as the stereotype that they have in their heads, that we don't exist. And so, it's hard to rally behind and care about something that's not even on your radar,"said Snowbird.
The concept of Missing White Woman Syndrome has been studied several times, and in one publication Jada L. Moss examines the idea in relation to legal measures that contribute to the lack of search and recovery of missing Black girls and Women. The publication defines Missing White Woman Syndrome as the "overabundance of coverage that mainstream media outlets dedicate to missing persons cases of white women and its correlating lack of coverage of missing people of color."
Snowbird said the majority of violence committed against Indigenous people comes from perpetrators of other races and ethnicities. "There are a lot of connections between resource extraction and where those man camps get set up, versus violence against our women. Because where those resource extraction man camps take place tends to be in rural areas that a lot of times border reservation lands," explained Snowbird.
According to a report published by the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, Indigenous women are more likely to experience violence than any other demographic. "We are working on developing a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Task Force for the state of Colorado," said Snowbird, who told News5 Haseya Advocate Program is working with a Colorado senator to try and form the task force.
"The Polis-Primavera administration is committed to partnering with the American Indian and Alaska Native community as well as Tribal and local governments to address the serious issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR). Indigenous women and relatives are murdered or go missing at a higher rate than any group in the United States and the true number of MMIR is unknown. Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) staff will work with state agencies to identify barriers, how to address these barriers, and how to increase collaboration across jurisdictions."
Snowbird said one of the biggest challenges faced when trying to pull data regarding missing or murdered Indigenous people is the way they are identified by local law enforcement. "How do we coordinate with law enforcement to make sure they're accurately identifying indigenous people? Because that is something that happens on a very regular basis, that we are not accurately identified... We can't even pull the data. Because if there are no native people listed, then there's no native specific data," said Snowbird.
Snowbird claims 24-year-old Sheree Barker, who was murdered in Colorado Springs in 2016, was never correctly identified as an Indigenous woman. "She was shot in her car with her son in the backseat, and if we look at the data of the Colorado Springs Police Department, there are no indigenous homicides listed in the year she was killed. So, she wasn't even identified as an Indigenous woman, even though she was an enrolled tribal member," said Snowbird.
News5 reached out to the Colorado Springs Police Department to learn more about Barker's case. A spokesperson said police can identify someone as Native American or Alaska Native, but in previous contact with Barker, she had not identified as either.
Those with the police department said regardless of race or ethnicity, they are dedicated to finding justice for a victim and some kind of closure for their family. The spokesperson also said last year, the department cleared 82.1% of their homicide cases from 2020, which is well above the national average.
Snowbird also mentioned Agnes "Jeri" Foland, saying she was killed in 2002. "Agnes was a houseless relative that was here in Colorado Springs. Her case is still unsolved," Snowbird said.
The Urban Indian Health Institute study attempted to collect data from 71 cities across the country to assess the number and dynamics of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. About two-thirds of all the agencies surveyed did not provide the requested data or only had partial data with significant compromises, according to the report.
Based on the information received by the Urban Indian Health Institute, there were 506 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls throughout the selected cities, with 56% of those reported as murder cases. The oldest case discovered dated back to 1943, but the majority were from 2010 to 2018.
Due to the limited resources of the researchers and what the study calls "poor data collection by several cities," it is likely there are more than 506 cases across the surveyed urban areas.
More than 95% of the cases identified were never covered by national or international media outlets, according to the study. "This is a crisis. This is genocide if you look at our people, the amount of people who are coming up missing. So, there needs to be that same fire lit for all of these people, and not just cherry-picked," said Snowbird.
When an Indigenous person disappears or is murdered, deciding what jurisdiction the crime falls under is a huge issue, said Snowbird. She said it would not be a problem in Colorado Springs, since the case would either be city or county.
CLICK HERE to see an Indian Country Criminal Jurisdictional Chart.
Another local activist and Indigenous woman, Raven Payment, said it feels as though the names of missing or murdered Indigenous people are written on her heart. "You kind of walk with those stories and those people are with you, even if you've never met them... You understand what that grief is, while also trying to stifle anger that people don't care about your relatives in the same capacity," explained Payment.
Payment also stressed that now is the time to start paying attention. "It's never too late for people to start looking, and for people to start caring and kind of understanding Indigenous issues, why Indigenous people are going missing. And to start levying some of our resources and our attention towards solving and trying to find some of our lost, stolen sisters and relatives," said Payment.
Those with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI) said there are 13 Indigenous people missing in the state, based on numbers from the Colorado Crime Information Center and National Crime Information Center. The spokesperson also told News5 any personal information about a victim is plugged into the system directly by law enforcement, and there are hundreds of new entries every month. Those with CBI said they do not necessarily address those entries outside of alerts issued by the Bureau.
When information is given to the CBI by law enforcement, especially with pictures, their cold case analyst will verify the victim's race before adding it to the database.
Those with the CBI said they have had a series of meetings with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and those are in the early stages. They also recently surveyed state investigative partner agencies to learn more about how other states are addressing missing indigenous persons. The hope is to have results by the end of the month.
Snowbird provided News5 with what she believes to be a current list of missing or murdered Indigenous people throughout Colorado. The underlined names are those who are missing, and have the last date recorded when they were seen. The other names are Indigenous people who have been killed.