Stories abound in Native American communities about loved ones who have been beaten, gone missing, disappeared, or been murdered. A 2News investigation reveals, despite countless anecdotes, public officials don't know how many Native people are missing or have been murdered in Utah. At the center of the problem, jurisdictional loopholes between federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement as well as frequent racial misclassification prevent accurate case tracking.
In Utah, the latest case of a missing indigenous woman started on the Navajo Nation. Kayla Blackbird disappeared last September, and hasn't been seen or heard from since.
Where is Kayla Blackbird?
Somewhere on the Navajo Nation near Aneth, Utah, the search is on for 29-year-old Blackbird.
Blackbird's mother, Coralene Morgan, says the hardest part is not knowing if her daughter is okay.
Morgan claims her daughter's case has been overlooked by the media and police.
I don’t think they are putting effort into it," Morgan says.
Shortly after Morgan's interview with the 2News Investigative Team, Navajo Nation police officers confirmed they visited Morgan but had no leads.
The Unsolved Murder of Akosita Kaufusi
Sgt. Melody Cutler says Unified Police Department is searching for the killer of 42-year-old Akosita Kaufusi,
Kaufusi's body was found near Saltair last August.
This is a human being who lost her life," says Cutler. "We still don’t have any answers.
Six months later, the case still has no leads.
We have a detective that this case almost haunts her," Cutler explains. "She thinks about it constantly, trying to find anything.
HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM IN UTAH?
According the the US Department of Justice, American Indian and Alaskan Native women are two and a half times more likely to experience violent crimes and two times more likely to experience sexual violence than any other ethnicity.
Michelle Brown, Committee Chair for MMIW+ Utah said:
Violence against indigenous women and two spirit people are disproportionate."
It's unclear how serious the violence is against Native people because the state is not tracking it.
Multiple sources the 2News Investigative Team interviewed said racial misclassification contributes to inaccurate reporting.
There’s no training really that exists for it right now on how to ensure that you’re properly classifying an individual as Native American explains.
Because of jurisdictional loopholes between federal, state, county, and tribal authorities, there's no clear data on how many Native women go missing every year and how many of those end in murder.
WHAT THE 2NEWS INVESTIGATION FOUND
The Department of Public Safety lists 15 total cold cases involving Native American victims, out of 377 cold cases statewide.
Two of those Native victims are female: Ermalinda Garza and Rebecca Jane White.
In the past three years, Salt Lake County has seen three homicides of Native American women: 30-year-old Elizabeth Silver, 41-year-old Utahna Halona, and Akosita Kaufusi.
The FBI reports 565 actively missing indigenous women nationwide. According to DPS, there are 25 in Utah.
WEB EXCLUSIVE: MICHELLE BROWN TELLS HER FAMILY'S STORY OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA
WEB EXCLUSIVE: A REPORT CLAIMS SALT LAKE IS IN THE TOP 10 MOST DANGEROUS CITIES FOR NATIVE WOMEN; SLCPD DISPUTES THE NUMBERS
During the course of our investigation, advocates and public officials cited the Urban Indian Health Institute's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls Report.
The report lists Salt Lake City and Utah making a top ten list for the most cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.
The Salt Lake City Police Department disputes the numbers in the report, pointing to issues in the way UIHI requested data from the department.
SLCPD issued the following statement in response to claims made in the report:
As we have pointed out before, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous report was compiled with bad data and comparisons were not on equal data sets. Salt Lake City does not belong on the list of most dangerous cities. Again, this report highlights the need for better tracking of the data and centralized compiling of this information so that we can accurately deploy resources to combat this issue. We believe that Missing and Murdered Indigenous women are under reported and often overlooked. While we do not agree with the findings of the report, we are thankful that it has created a discussion and action surrounding this issue. We will continue to work with other law enforcement and elected officials bring about positive change.
A CULTURE GAP BETWEEN LAW ENFORCEMENT AND NATIVE FAMILIES
Public officials told the 2News Investigative Team there's no training in Utah to help police work with Native families, who culturally may be more private and distrustful of law enforcement.
Depending what tribe you are, and there are hundreds of registered tribes in the United States :06 there are different customs and taboos even in that and death can be one of them," Brown says. "So it’s a really hard subject for families to really speak on.
WHY NO MEDIA COVERAGE?
Another major issue is the lack of media coverage for missing and murder Native Americans.
I do hear that all the time, 'Well, we’ve already covered that.' Well, yeah, you did, but we still don’t have any suspect and we know that somebody out there in the public needs to know.
While some missing and murdered cases, like Susan Powell and Mackenzie Lueck, receive media attention for months, it's rare with cases involving Native women. Cutler says:
The reality is the media is our best source to get the information out to the greatest amount of people.
TASKFORCE TO START COLLECTING DATA FROM TRIBES AND NATIVE FAMILIES
Democratic State Representative Angela Romero says:
Indigenous women are at a higher risk than white women, and many other groups here in the state of Utah," says . "And the majority of the time, their perpetrator isn’t a Native American man.
Romero, whose father is Assiniboine, put together the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force with state law enforcement, the Paiute Indian Tribe. nonprofits serving Utah's Native communities, legislators, and the assistant attorney general.
We realized that this was a larger issue and that we were going to need more time to look at this.
We wanted to make sure we were also listening and we were also identifying which ways we can do preventative work. Or, we can solve some of these unsolved cases by bringing the stories and listening to these families and letting them know that we believe them. And we want to make sure justice is brought."
Romero is looking to extend the taskforce through 2023.
A MOTHER STILLS HAS MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT HER DAUGHTER'S DISAPPEARANCE
I worry every day and night. Wonder if she’s OK or if they did something to her."
Kayla Blackbird's mother hopes her daughter will be found safe so she doesn't become yet another statistic among this problem growing here in Utah.
It’s scary. Heartbreaking
Todd Dinsmore, Randy Likness, and Michelle Poe contributing reporting.