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Debbie Nez Manuel’s mother went missing when she was 3 years old.

“We eventually found her and were able to bury her,” Manuel said. “There is no way I can regain any of those years with my mother.”

Manuel’s mother Frances Tsinajinnie was 35 and when she went missing in 1973. She went from their home in Klagetoh, Arizona, to Gallup, New Mexico, a border town near the Navajo Nation to search for Manuel’s father.

Her father eventually came home, but Manuel’s mother did not. Manuel doesn't have a clear timeline for how long her mother was missing. It may have been four days, but she doesn't have documents to specify. She was found that same year.

Manuel shared her story in support of HB2570, a bill to establish a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Arizona. It was a way to heal and impress the severity of the problem.

The Arizona House of Representatives passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, unanimously with a vote of 60-0. It is now moving to the Arizona Senate.

A national issue 

Manuel said seeing the bill pass was a powerful feeling because there were several girls standing with them who were under the age of 18.

“That is who we’re doing this for,” she said. “We’re doing this for them to keep them safe.”

Arizona has the third highest number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the country, according to a 2017 study from the Urban Indian Health Institute.

The study recorded a total of 506 known cases in 71 urban cities across the country. Fifty-four cases exist in Arizona, 31 of those in Tucson.

The issue is important for Arizona's 22 tribes and the urban Natives who now live in the area from across the U.S., Manuel said. “It’s not important for just one particular tribe."

Manuel stood at the front of the viewing gallery on Monday, as the vote was being held, holding a picture of her mother. She was dressed in traditional clothing with her two daughters, husband and dozens of other Indigenous women.

“The source of our culture is with women and that’s where we need to really focus our work at this time,” Manuel said. “We have the opportunity now to do more, and if we keep pushing, and if all the tribes come together in support of this, we can make things happen.”

A lack of data

As the bill stands, the task force will include tribal government members, victim advocates, tribal police, social workers, Indian Health Services leaders and more.

This group will conduct a comprehensive study, looking into how the state can reduce and end violence against indigenous women and girls in Arizona. Methods for tracking and collecting data on violence against indigenous women and girls will also be established.

A limited amount of data is available on the number of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S. because of the lack of data collection on this issue.

For April Ignacio, chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party's Native American Cactus and a member of Indivisible Tohono, getting the bill passed was just the beginning.

Having members of the statehouse see the number of Native people showing up on Monday was impactful, Ignacio said. It allows them “to see that we’re real people.”

“These types of issues impact our communities directly, whether we’re in the cities or we’re living on the rez,” Ignacio said. “Tribes have been asking for this for a long time.”

Ignacio got involved in the movement for missing and murdered indigenous women three years ago when she started doing research on her own community, Tohono O’odham Nation.

“I knew that we didn’t have the collection of data. I know that our police department didn’t have the resources,” she said. So, she started talking and visiting people in her community, compiling a list of her own.

When Ignacio started to look through her data, she realized this has been going on for more than 50 years. One of her oldest cases is from 1968.

“There’s no answers for these families,” she added. 

The future of the bill 

Now the bill is headed to the Arizona Senate, where it will face committee hearings and a vote of the full chamber.

Ignacio wanted it to be clear that this is just a study, and an effort to collect the data on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. There is no money being put toward any program.

“That is the most heartbreaking part about it, just simply asking our legislatures to listen,” Ignacio said. “The tribes have been saying that this is an issue, and this vote means they’re finally listening to tribes.”

“That’s why this is groundbreaking, and that’s why it’s important for us to show up,” she added.

Reporter Shondiin Silversmith covers Indigenous people and communities in Arizona. Reach her at ssilversmi@arizonarepublic.com and follow her Twitter @DiinSilversmith.

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