Could Drones Help This Colorado Nonprofit Find Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women? | Westword

Could Drones Help Find Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women?

A Colorado nonprofit has a new idea for finding crime victims in the West.
Ella Mae Begay and Pepita Redhair are among thousands of Indigenous women who are missing or have been murdered.
Ella Mae Begay and Pepita Redhair are among thousands of Indigenous women who are missing or have been murdered. FBI/Family photo via
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The number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States long ago reached scandalous proportions. But according to Brandy Martinez, founder and CEO of Look for Me, a Golden-based nonprofit, finding victims has been complicated by a frustrating lack of communication and cooperation among various law enforcement agencies that frequently leads to inaction.

"Tribal police, state police, the feds — it's an issue just to establish jurisdiction," Martinez says. "It takes a long time for families to get anything done."

Now Martinez and White Owl, Look for Me's crisis coordinator, have come up with a plan to help such searches take flight. They're behind a project to provide drones for use in searching for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), and they hope their presentation at the first annual Regional Tribal Emergency Management Summit in South Dakota, scheduled to take place next week, will lead to its implementation.

"We want to provide a platform to teach drone pilots to provide security and emergency services," notes White Owl. "It's for the grassroots. We see them as our greatest assets, and we want them to have the proper training so we can mobilize them to act when situations happen."

The scope of the crisis is undeniable, but there are disagreements over specifics. The website for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs stresses the need for investigative resources related to MMIW cases by pointing out that "approximately 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons have been entered into the National Crime Information Center throughout the U.S., and approximately 2,700 cases of murder and negligent homicide offenses have been reported to the federal government's Uniform Crime Reporting program. In total, BIA estimates there are approximately 4,200 missing and murdered cases that have gone unsolved."

The MMIW page on the site of Native Hope, a South Dakota nonprofit, suggests that the Bureau of Indian Affairs' figures may actually be low, in part because of widespread underreporting. In 2016, the NCIC is said to have collected information about 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. During that period, however, NamUs, the U.S. Justice Department's missing persons database, logged just 116 cases.

The disappearance in New Mexico of Ella Mae Begay, and what happened afterward, motivated Martinez to take on the MMIW cause.

"Ella Mae was an elder who went missing in the Navajo Nation two years ago in June," she recalls. "She was 62, and her niece, Seraphine [Warren], went through so much to find her. She could have been anyone's auntie, but no one was looking for her other than her family. That's when I got involved in the search-and-rescue aspect of this."

Begay's remains have not yet been found, but in April, Preston Henry Tolth, 23, was arraigned on assault and carjacking charges related to Begay's disappearance.

click to enlarge Indigenous woman located by searchers.
A dream was instrumental in finding the remains of Jamie Yazzie.
The August 2022 indictment of Tre James, age thirty, for the murder of Jamie Yazzie, a resident of Pinon, Arizona, was also a long time coming. Yazzie "went missing back in June 2019," Martinez says, and more than two years later, in 2021, "we ended up getting a canine team to search for her in a location her auntie had a dream about. She had exact coordinates, and while they were searching, the Hopi police department was like, 'What are you guys doing out here?' After that, the police sent out a search team, and about a week later, they found Jamie's remains." That was on the second day of a prayer run led by Martina Maryboy, another inspiration behind Look for Me who's now serving as the organization's president.

No such resolution has taken place regarding Pepita Redhair, "who went missing out of Albuquerque over two years ago," Martinez says. "She was staying with her boyfriend, who had a long history of alcohol abuse and domestic violence. She got beat up really badly, and a week later, she went missing. Her mom filed a report right away, but as of last summer, there hadn't been a single search for her. So we helped connect them with a canine group, and we tried to get a drone team, because the area she may have gone missing in is very large and has really rough terrain: dirt roads with no names. But we couldn't find any people trained with drones who were willing to help."

This scenario soon started to change for the better, when Martinez and White Owl engaged in a random conversation with a couple they met at an RV park. "They really wanted to help," White Owl recalls, "and they said they had a friend in the drone business who would send us some drones. We didn't really think anything of it; we thought they were just talking. But when we were about to leave the RV park, on our last day there, a Fed Ex truck dropped off four drones" from Connecticut's Aquiline Drones.

The firm's CEO, Barry Alexander, subsequently pledged to "help us get FAA certification," White Owl continues, "and give us the blueprint to build our own independent drone companies."
click to enlarge Aquiline Drones kit used to search
Aquiline Drone obtained by Look for Me to search for missing women.
Courtesy of Look for Me
The first batch of drones has already been distributed. One was sent to the Four Corners area, another was gifted to a representative of Oklahoma's Indian territories, and a third was delivered to an emergency-services group based in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, by Jeremiah Wilber, the Colorado-based CEO of the War Party Movement, which aims to empower abuse survivors through support, education, skills training and direct intervention. The movement's motto: "No more stolen sisters."

Look for Me's expanded drone proposal will be unveiled at the Regional Tribal Emergency Management Summit, slated for June 12 and 13 at the Ramkota Hotel, 2111 North Lacrosse Street, in Rapid City. The attendees are expected to include "a coalition of tribal presidents and executives from Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota representing the Muscogee Nation, the Seminole Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Crow Nation and the Great Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Nation," White Owl says. "We hope they will implement Aquiline drones and their program — because Aquiline has the ability to give them the resources they need. The only way to do this is from the ground up."

The Colorado Legislature addressed the MMIW issue in its last session. Senate Bill 23-054, signed into law by Governor Jared Polis on June 2, calls for the state's office of liaision for missing and murdered Indigenous relatives in the Department of Public Safety to "communicate with relevant department divisions regarding investigations in cases involving missing or murdered indigenous relatives" and "designate one employee of the office to serve as a point of contact for families in need of support," along with several other attempted improvements.

But Look for Me's leaders aren't waiting for bureaucratic upgrades. Martinez says her goal "is to bring the missing home as safely as possible, and to make sure their families stay safe, too. Without the proper training, you could go out on a search and end up with two or three other people missing or injured. But these families want to know someone is looking for their loved ones."

Adds White Owl: "We want to be the generation that ends the missing and murdered crisis."

Look for Me is raising funds to underwrite the trip to the Regional Tribal Emergency Management Summit; For more information, visit the Look for Me GoFundMe page. Donations can also be made via Venmo (@lookforme) and CashApp ($lookformenetwork).
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