• Wed. Mar 22nd, 2023


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F.B.I. Issues Navajo Language Alert for Unsolved Homicide

The F.B.I. started airing a radio ad last week seeking information about the fatal shooting of a man in Naschitti, N.M., within the Navajo Nation.

In an unusual move, the plea for help came directly from Sharon Lee-Begay, the mother of the victim, Lee Michael Pahe. The ad features Ms. Lee-Begay speaking in Navajo as part of a broader effort to direct more resources to crimes against Native Americans.

Native Americans are victims of violent crime at a far higher rate than the national average, and efforts by grass-roots activists to draw attention to these cases have accelerated the responses from politicians and law enforcement in recent years.

In the 90-second ad, which is airing twice a day on the Navajo language radio station KTNN, Ms. Lee-Begay says her son was a married father and asks for people to share any information they might have about his death from a gunshot wound last July.

“I’m relying wholeheartedly on all of you who are listening, on your compassion,” Ms. Lee-Begay said. “I am hoping that you will help me.”

Mr. Pahe, 30, was found dead next to a water pump on the afternoon of July 26. The F.B.I. said that Mr. Pahe, a resident of Fort Defiance, Ariz., was last seen leaving a residence in Navajo, N.M., at 2 a.m. on the day he was found dead.

The F.B.I. is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Mr. Pahe’s death.

The field offices in Albuquerque and Phoenix said that, in February 2021, they began to provide audio alerts in Navajo alongside posters for unsolved homicide and missing persons cases. The field offices said they started issuing posters in the Navajo language in March 2020. Fifteen of those posters are listed on the F.B.I.’s website.

The Navajo Nation’s first lady, Phefelia Nez, said in an interview on Thursday that making these alerts available in the Navajo language was an important piece of improving the response to violent crime, following the process from initial reporting to prosecution. She said that the broadcasts would help with “information gathering and just having more people aware that these things do happen.”

There were approximately 1,500 missing persons identified as American Indian and Alaska Native in the National Crime Information Center at the end of 2021 and 2,700 cases of murder reported to the federal Uniform Crime Reporting Program, but advocates say these numbers are a low estimate.

Officials have misclassified Indigenous victims of crime by race and lost track of their records, according to a 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, which researches and collects data about American Indian and Alaska Native people.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, the institute’s director, said communities have been asking for a response like the radio ad for decades. She said it was an vital step forward not only because it was in Navajo, but also because it featured the voice of a family member and included a financial reward.

“There isn’t a region in this country that doesn’t need an effort like this,” said Ms. Echo-Hawk said, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.

Following grass-roots organizing and activism, states including Minnesota, Arizona and Wyoming have created task forces to identify and address the gaps in the response to Indigenous homicide and missing persons cases.

In February, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico signed legislation to direct more state resources to prevent and respond to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the state. In November, an Arizona law went into effect, aiming to reduce the number of missing Indigenous children by improving how the cases are reported and tracked.

At the federal level, President Biden signed an executive order in November committing to reduce violence against Native Americans. Deb Haaland, the secretary of the Interior and the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency, announced in April 2021 that a new unit had been created in the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide more federal resources to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people.