Colorado lawmaker takes on Office for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives

Jennifer Black Elk remembers her nephew, Wanbli Oyote Vigil, as the kind of person to drop everything to help a loved one move back across state lines. Twice.

She remembers him as a doting uncle and a bright mind whose suggestions for her book still steer her writing. As a formerly devout Christian exploring his Lakota heritage, identity and spirituality.

“He really grasped that spirituality that we have,” Black Elk said. “It was something that was really personal to him.”

When Vigil, 27, went missing shortly before the new year, Black Elk thought he stepped out of their home to go pray. He hadn’t dressed for winter weather and left the door ajar. Vigil had been anxious for days, Black Elk recalled. He had checked himself into a hospital on Christmas Eve, just days before he went missing, but was released the next day.

Vigil would be the first official case for the newly instituted Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. The Native American community faces violence at a disproportionate rate — women particularly — and too often they feel law enforcement does not take the cases seriously.

State lawmakers created the office last year. Backers hoped it would bridge the gap between law enforcement and the indigenous community, as well as advocate for the families and the missing people. The legislation was also subject to last-minute compromises to pass the legislature and gain the governor’s signature. Raven Payment, who helped lead the 2022 effort and continues as a volunteer organizing and searching for missing people, said then that the passed bill was about 80% of what advocates wanted.

This year, they’re fighting to strengthen the office with SB23-054, with state Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat, again carrying the bill. Black Elk testified to its need at a recent hearing, with the tragedy of her nephew underscoring it. By that measure, it’s a failure, she said.

When Vigil didn’t return home last year, Black Elk started calling area hospitals, jails and anywhere else she thought a person in crisis might be. She filed a missing person’s report on Jan. 1. It would be two more days before a missing indigenous persons alert would go out for him. Vigil was found dead on Jan. 6, just three blocks from where he lived with Black Elk and three days after the alert went out. He was sitting behind some duplexes for an unknown number of days, hypothermic.

Volunteers in the community came together to help with fliers and to rally neighbors to look for Vigil, Black Elk said. The volunteer missing and murdered indigenous relatives task force, which fought to establish the new state office last year, “was really a vital piece of us keeping our sanity” during the search for Vigil, Black Elk said.

“(The volunteers) were there every step of the way, from the first phone call,” Black Elk said. They should be the ones getting paid for the amount of work they do, she added.

Black Elk didn’t know how the state office or law enforcement was responding. She described the interactions with the state office as surface-level, or even as publicity stunts.

“I was kind of left in the dark and doing my own thing, looking for my nephew,” Black Elk said.

Since the alert system went live on Dec. 30, it’s been used five times officially — an average of nearly once per week. It’s akin to an Amber Alert for missing children, though it does not automatically blast out to every person’s phone.

Most people need to sign up for the alert, though it automatically goes out to law enforcement.  Black Elk wants to see the alert more deeply resemble the Amber Alerts, as well as see the office more empathetically and urgently respond to cases like her nephew’s.

At the 2023 bill’s first hearing, families of missing and murdered indigenous people and advocates testified to the shortcomings and pitfalls they’ve seen with the office’s implementation so far. The volunteer task force has had to “spoonfeed” information to the office, Monycka Snowbird, director of the Haseya Advocate Program, testified.

“When we approach the agencies charged with our protection and safety, we are given a narrative of how great they are doing … if that is the case, then why are we here?” Payment, who volunteers with the task force and helped lead last year’s bill, said while testifying in support of this year’s effort.

Lawmakers have so far delayed acting on the renewed effort, though they heard testimony about it last week. Democrats are working to assuage concerns from law enforcement. Department of Public Safety Executive Director Stan Hilkey testified during the hearing that there were still technical issues to be worked out with implementing the program, and worried that the proposed bill would have a chilling effect on information sharing.

This year’s bill would expand reporting requirements for the office. It would also require the hiring of an employee to serve as a point of contact for the families of missing people and give office personnel access to certain non-public criminal justice records. It would make it a specific crime for personnel to release non-public records.

Hilkey also said the current setup has some difficulties because the Colorado Bureau of Investigation often does not have original jurisdiction over the cases, and the liaison on behalf of the office is not a law enforcement officer. Much of the frustration about responses to missing indigenous people may tie back to local law enforcement not acting as fast as people would like, Hilkey said.

“I would like to see a place where we work together better rather than trying to tear each other apart,” Hilkey said.

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, said the testimony showed there is more for the state to do to better serve indigenous communities. He said he’s working with Danielson and law enforcement representatives on amendments.

“The bill overall is a great idea. We’re just trying to work out some of the details to protect confidentiality, protect victim’s rights and ensure the problem that we’re trying to solve actually gets solved,” Roberts said.

Danielson, who is sponsoring the bill, said she’s hopeful they’ll be able to move the bill forward.

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