On March 24, 2020, Pepita Redhair (Navajo) left her mother’s home in Crownpoint, N.M. — a small town on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation — to spend a few days at her boyfriend’s house in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city. But three days later, when her mother, Anita King (Navajo), texted to see how she was doing, Pepita didn’t respond.
In that moment, King said, her intuition told her “that something happened.” Pepita, then 27, always answered her mother’s text messages and phone calls.
A few days later, when King texted Pepita again, a man texted back to say that someone had sold him the phone, she said. That’s when King said she decided to file a missing persons report. But, more than a year later, King still hasn’t gotten any answers.
When Gabby Petito went missing last month, the search to uncover what happened to the 22-year-old White woman dominated news headlines. Although many expressed condolences for her family, some advocates raising attention around missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) saw a discrepancy in how their family members’ cases were handled and the national attention Petito received.
In New Mexico, where Pepita disappeared, the state has logged the highest number of cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the United States. In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force Act, establishing a task force to study and provide recommendations on ending the crisis. In December, the task force published its first report, noting poor data collection and difficulties coordinating tribal, state and federal law enforcement to solve MMIW cases. Of the 92 missing persons cases involving an American Indian or Alaska Native person that the task force identified over a 5-year period, five had been solved.
The true magnitude of the MMIW crisis is unknown, but it is gaining more national attention. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, in 2016 the National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, but only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database. In April, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, announced the formation of a Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The bureau’s Not Invisible Act Commission is focused squarely on the epidemic of missing, murdered and trafficked Native Americans.
When King went to report her daughter Pepita as missing to the Albuquerque Police Department last year, she “tried so hard to call the detective every day,” she said. But with the covid-19 pandemic in its early weeks, she said, the police couldn’t interview Pepita’s boyfriend or other sources. She felt like no one that she turned to could help: The Navajo Nation government didn’t offer her any resources, she said, and local news stations declined to cover Pepita’s case without police department approval.
On April 19, Pepita’s boyfriend, Nicholas Kaye, filed his own missing persons report, explaining what he said happened that night. According to the police report, he and Pepita went out for a drink on the night of March 26. They later argued and Pepita walked out; the next day, Kaye said he received a text from Pepita saying she was with another man. Kaye guessed that it might have been a man they had met while they were out the night before. (Kaye could not be reached for comment.)
But King remains suspicious of Kaye — she said he sometimes got violent with Pepita. In May, King drove to Albuquerque to collect Pepita’s things from Kaye’s home, and she said she hasn’t heard from him since.
In an email statement, the Albuquerque Police Department said it was aware “of a domestic history with the boyfriend and are checking into it.” The department also noted that Pepita’s “case had gone cold, however we are currently working some new leads and a detective is assigned to the case. There are no indications of foul play at this time.”
Noting that New Mexico is home to 23 sovereign nations, New Mexico Indian Affairs Department general counsel Stephanie Salazar (Navajo) and MMIWR Task Force outreach and education coordinator Jessica Gidagaakoons Smith (Bois Forte Band of Minnesota Chippewa Tribe) explained in an emailed statement that “when law enforcement is asked to respond about a possible missing or murdered person, sometimes confusion may arise about which agency should respond” — tribal, local or federal — “especially when jurisdiction is not clear.”
Instead of law enforcement or media taking the lead, King became “the front line person bringing the community together to find her daughter,” said Michele Curtis (Navajo), the sex-trafficking project coordinator at the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
“We started printing missing person flyers with my own money, and we started passing out flyers in Albuquerque,” King said. “We were just continuing our own investigation.”
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who coordinates the volunteer-run working group Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives, said she and other advocates have been calling for changes to law enforcement within the Navajo Nation. Specifically, they’re “trying to create a missing persons unit within the Navajo Nation public safety” department and improve coordination between tribal police and the FBI.
“We really need the executive branch to make a commitment to develop a missing persons unit,” Crotty said. She hopes that commitment will also come with funding to support volunteer-led efforts and connect families with appropriate resources. (The office of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez did not respond to a request for comment.)
New Mexico’s MMIW task force has called for better training for law enforcement to make sure data is appropriately collected. Salazar and Smith note that “152 cases that were reported to the State Missing Persons Clearinghouse had an unknown status with regards to their race” — meaning there could be a higher number of missing Indigenous people who’ve gone unrecorded.
One change that the federal missing persons database has made that’s helpful, Crotty said, is noting the tribal affiliation of missing persons. That data shows her that the Navajo Nation, the largest sovereign nation in the United States, has the greatest number of missing persons cases.
More than a year later, King has remained committed to finding out what happened to her daughter. That dedication reached a peak last month when her husband passed away, she said.
“He didn’t get closure,” King said. “I promised him that I will find our daughter.”
On Oct. 3, King and local advocates organized a rally for Pepita that evolved into a protest for other missing and murdered Indigenous women in Albuquerque’s Tiguex Park. Although King had originally hoped to organize a smaller event to pass out flyers, the larger rally drew the attention of state and tribal advocates, as well as local attorneys who have taken on Pepita’s case.
“I was just amazed” by the turnout at the rally, King said. “But at the same time, it’s sad that last year nobody helped me. And I tried so many things.”
Smith, of the MMIWR Task Force, said that “all too often, our people need to fight to get their loved ones’ story out to the public.” Especially as Petito’s case continues to get coverage, she said, it’s a reminder that there are other families who have lost loved ones: “Each and every one of them deserve to be fought for and their families deserve to be heard and seen.”
After she retrieved Pepita’s belongings from Albuquerque, King returned them to her childhood bedroom in the family house in Crownpoint. She wanted the room to be ready for her if she ever came home, she said.
“She was a bright young lady,” King said. Her daughter dreamed of becoming an engineer or a teacher, and loved to draw and skateboard. “I try to keep myself strong by praying, by having faith,” King said. But “ever since she went missing my life has changed. I’m not happy, I can’t really enjoy things that I used to.”
King said she’s planning a candlelight vigil for Pepita later this month, and in the meantime, she’s continuing to print flyers and spread the word about her daughter’s disappearance.
All King can hope for, she said, are answers.