Navajo woman Seraphine Warren walks from Arizona to DC to bring to light her missing aunt

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Seraphine Warren set foot in Washington on Sunday evening, with the eagle feathers on her prayer stick waving in the breeze, as she completed her nearly 2,400-mile prayer walk from Sweetwater, Ariz., on the Navajo nation. She embarked on the trip to honor her Aunt Ella Mae Begay, a Dineh (Navajo) elder who disappeared 16 months ago, and to raise awareness of the alarming number of missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially women .

The Missing and Murdered Native Women’s (#MMIW) movement has gained traction in recent years as Native American activists have criticized tribal and federal law enforcement officials for failing to aggressively investigate cases and courts for not prosecuting. Jurisdictional disputes, lack of data and systemic racism have been cited for creating what some have called an invisible epidemic. Various reports have shown that Aboriginal women are at a higher risk of violence over their lifetime, ranging from sexual assault to murder.

“It feels like we as Indigenous people are not important,” Warren said in an interview last week, citing both lack of law enforcement support and lack of attention. of the media when indigenous peoples, which include Native Americans and Alaska Natives, go extinct.

Warren, 41, livestreamed his arrival in the nation’s capital to some 21,000 followers on his Trailing Ellamae Facebook page. On Tuesday, she met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous woman to hold the post. “She generally listened,” Warren said, describing the session with Haaland. She hopes to meet other officials in the coming days.

Warren began his prayer walk at 2.30am on June 15, 2022 – a year before the date and time of his aunt’s disappearance. Her mother, fearing the danger, begged her not to go.

Begay, whom Warren calls “aunt,” has not been seen since driving off in her truck from her home in the Navajo Nation. His truck has not been found and his cell phone is now going straight to voicemail.

Warren says Begay, who was 62 at the time of his disappearance, is a “very talented” master rug weaver. “She’s sweet, gentle and reserved,” Warren says, and wouldn’t let anyone into her house, especially at night. She kept a piece of plywood to barricade the door.

Life was not easy for Begay in the 27,000 square mile Dineh (Navajo) Nation. Her husband was murdered 21 years ago. She had just had electricity a few months before she disappeared, after buying a solar panel with the money raised by selling his carpets.

Haaland said working on the issue of missing and murdered women would be one of his top priorities as Home Secretary. She formed a Missing and Murdered Persons Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide additional resources and coordinate efforts between agencies. After the publicity blizzard last year over the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman whose body was found in Wyoming less than three weeks after she disappeared, Haaland reminded the media and the public that hundreds of Indigenous girls and women are also missing or murdered.

In a written statement she delivered to Haaland, Warren calls this epidemic of violence facing Indigenous peoples “hidden terrorism.”

Warren wants the secretary to investigate how missing and murdered cases are handled by the Tribal Police, working to improve investigative methods, develop better communication with families, and provide support, such as bereavement counseling and mental health support for family members.

“We need search and rescue teams,” she says. “We need equipment like ATVs, drones, helicopters, water sonars. We have families looking to walk. We need dead dogs. We need funding for billboards and awards. We need our own medical examiners. Our tradition is to bury our loved ones within four days and we can’t.

National Institute of Justice report says more than 84% of Indigenous women will experience violence in their lifetime, while Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says murder is the third leading cause of death among girls and young women. The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports that for women living on reservations, the murder rate is 10 times higher than the national average.

This startling statistic was highlighted at the end of the first episode of ‘Alaska Daily,’ a new ABC show starring Hilary Swank as a New York reporter who moves to Anchorage where she investigates murders of women. indigenous. Although fictional, the show is inspired by reporting on cases of sexual violence against Indigenous women by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News with ProPublica.

Warren grew up in the Navajo Nation and now lives in Salt Lake City, where she was a metalworker for eight years. She is the mother of five children and grandmother of one. She quit her job to spend time looking for her aunt.

Warren has seen firsthand the effect of abuse on his family. “When we were looking for my aunt in the 108 degree heat, I could see the fatigue in their eyes,” she said.

“I felt like I was going in circles for an entire month,” Warren said, describing her state of mind after her aunt disappeared. She was troubled by what she calls the “weak efforts” of the Navajo police and later the FBI to locate her aunt, and the “frustrating” lack of communication with the family. The FBI got involved after calling the case a homicide.

Former Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco defended his department’s actions in an article published last year by the Navajo Times.

Warren met three times with Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, but was unhappy with the results. An elderly lady told her she would not be respected for wearing jeans – and gave her the first of three ribbon dresses, which Warren wore on her trip.

Ribbon skirts and dresses have become a unifying symbol for Indigenous women, representing strength, pride in their heritage, and support for social issues, such as the MMIW movement. Secretary Haaland wore one during her swearing-in ceremony.

Warren also wears an arrowhead which she compares to a shield for its protective qualities, as well as turquoise jewelry. The eagle feathers on her prayer stick are believed to protect her from harm. Large sunglasses protect his eyes from the sun. A bandana holds her hair back.

She brought corn pollen, which is sacred to the Navajo, and sprinkled it at the beginning and end of each day when she prayed, and in the rivers when she asked the water gods for permission. . cross safely.

The logistics of her trip across the country are mind-boggling, but Warren kept it simple. She raises funds through social media and a gofundme for her expenses. A rental van, which also served as a sleeping place, was driven by family members and friends who volunteered to follow her. across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and finally Washington.

Due to the summer heat in the southwest, she started walking at 4 a.m. She could walk 20 miles in ten hours, but the first few days she walked until 7 p.m., even running sometimes, to walk 40 miles.

In Oklahoma, members of the Cherokee Nation provided more help than she received back home, she said, offering hotel stays and buying her shoes.

She persevered through rain and then colder weather as the seasons changed from summer to fall. She rolled her ankle at one point and was advised not to deal with it. She did not do it. In Kentucky, she had to go to the hospital for a dog bite. His brother, a runner, “took care of my feet” until he had to go home. She went through 15 pairs of running shoes.

Along the way, people told him stories of missing and murdered family members. A family has waited 35 years for answers. Not all were aboriginal; some were Hispanic, black and even white.

Warren added their names and messages from their families on ribbons to his prayer stick. As she walked, she prayed for them, with her aunt.

The missing and murdered “have no voice”, she said. “They give me the strength to carry on. They motivated me,” she says through tears. “Every day they motivated me.”

She posted about them on social media, along with photos and videos from her trip. The day she entered Washington, she was carrying a sign with a picture of Aaron J. Tsosie, who was murdered on April 26, 2017, provided by his mother.

She also shared moments of humor. “If Tom Hanks had his ‘Wilson’ volleyball to keep sane, I have my prayer stick to keep sane,” Warren wrote on Facebook in early October. Several days, she broadcast a live stream to update people on her progress.

Warren still hopes to find his aunt – alive. “I don’t want to find his body,” she said. “I don’t want to find her that way.

“I need my aunt back,” she said. “I want healing.”

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