Seraphine Warren has walked this route before in the name of her missing aunt, Ella Mae Begay.
Wearing a red shirt and skirt, a face mask, sunglasses, a bandanna and running shoes, Warren was less than 5 miles from Window Rock.
Almost one year ago exactly, she walked to Window Rock from Sweetwater, near Teec Nos Pos, where her missing aunt lived and was last seen. In the Navajo Nation capital, Warren wanted to get tribal leaders’ attention about Ella Mae and the lack of response to the case.
Now a year later, Window Rock is only a pit stop on the road to Warren’s ultimate destination: Washington, D.C.
The disappearance of Ella Mae Begay, who was reported missing June 15, 2021, from Sweetwater, captured national attention due in part to Warren’s determination to bring focus to the case by showing up and speaking out.
‘Everything’s at a standstill’: The search for Ella Mae Begay
Warren’s criticism of law enforcement, including the Navajo Nation police, Navajo Criminal Investigators and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sheds light on her experiences with law enforcement agencies, which seemed to work separately from one another, creating more obstacles when it comes to missing-persons cases on the Navajo Nation.
It also drew attention to the Navajo Nation’s long list of missing people, which dates back to the 1950s, a list of people who went missing and were never heard from again.
“I still feel helpless,” said Warren. “The only time I feel better is when I’m doing something for my aunt.”
While Warren walked toward Window Rock, monsoon clouds rolled in, bringing cooler temperatures. The wind that has become never-ending on the Navajo Nation diminished in strength. By then, Warren had been walking 100 miles.
“I really didn’t think that my aunt being missing would correlate with everything that I am doing,” said Warren. “When I was leaving, I was trying to think what to bring along the way. It was my son who said, ‘What are you doing? You don’t need anything.’ And then I instantly thought, ‘I don’t need anything.’ My aunt was forced to leave her house with nothing.”
Seeking awareness: Families and advocates seek justice for missing and murdered Indigenous people
Law enforcement actions frustrate families
Warren’s perseverance and demand for action have inspired others who are going through similar situations. Marilene James has been the voice for her niece, Jamie Yazzie, who went missing in 2019 and whose remains were found in November 2021.
“She is really fighting for this,” said James, talking about Warren in an earlier interview. “She gets a lot of backlash, but who else is going to do it? There are a lot of people who want to do it, but they’re scared.”
Yazzie was a mother of three boys and a nurse’s assistant in the pediatric center of the Pinon Health Center in the Navajo Nation when she went missing in June 2019.
“She was a hardworking mother of three boys,” said James. “She was a really outgoing and fun person. She was the type to take the time out of her day to be there with you.”
And like Warren, James said she found law enforcement unreliable throughout the entirety of the ordeal, from the day her niece went missing to when her remains were found. She said once Navajo Nation criminal investigators and the FBI stopped assisting, and after she found out that information they gave to law enforcement wasn’t documented as they thought, she took matters into her own hands.
James began to share flyers on social media, with information about Yazzie. She also purchased a billboard and put Yazzie’s picture on it in hopes someone would recognize the missing woman and notify authorities.
Now the billboard asks for information on Yazzie’s killer.
Seeking a killer: Navajo woman’s remains found over 2 years after disappearance
The family members left behind, wondering where their loved ones are and never receiving answers from authorities, have become a close group, leaning on one another for support.
“Two years looking for her (Yazzie), I got to know all these people,” said James. “And I’m like I want to do something more. I want to keep going and telling people my niece was missing, and then at the end we found out she was murdered. I can’t let this be it because there are other people that aren’t going to speak out because they’re afraid or they don’t know where to turn.”
Asking candidates for their plans
The Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety reported as of 2021, approximately 59 people on the Navajo Nation have been missing since the 1970s, including 15 women and 44 men. This number continues to grow as more missing-persons flyers are posted on the Navajo Nation Police Department’s Facebook page every week.
During Warren’s walk, which she is documenting on Facebook, she posted a video of herself walking by campaign signs for Navajo Nation candidates.
“All delegates, where are you? New presidential candidates, what’s your plan?” was what she captioned her video.
It’s election season for the 24 Navajo Nation council delegates and Navajo Nation president, along with other local government officials. So far, there are 17 presidential candidates all vying for a chance as the head of the executive office.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has met with Warren on several occasions during the past year and met with her again recently during her walk, which Warren noted. But she said Nez gave her no new information.
“What people don’t understand is there isn’t much hope or resources to turn to,” said Warren. “When someone goes missing, you put all your hopes and confidence in the police department to find out something, and it hasn’t happened yet. It’s been like that for years on the Navajo Nation.”
The anguish of not knowing where a loved one is becomes even more heart-wrenching when authorities seem to have forgotten about the missing and have stopped notifying families with information or updates on them.
Warren said this type of non-response has happened to other families. She hears the stories and she doesn’t want that to be the case for her family.
“I can’t let this one go like that,” said Warren. “I just can’t. Everything is connected to my aunt.”
Warren said she is disappointed in how the media is reporting the story, to the point where she isn’t really interested in speaking to reporters.
“As reporters, I would like you to put in the facts that I am actually saying,” said Warren. “Every time you guys do a report, you guys are jamming up the story and you’re not talking about the main problems. We don’t have rehabilitation centers, there’s no counseling centers, we are still low staff in police departments.”
One resource Warren wants for her own family are counseling services for her uncles and mother, elders who are going through a traumatic ordeal, one that has taken a toll on them mentally and emotionally. Warren said she worries about them because no one is checking on their well being and seeing how they’re handling the whole situation.
“When I do these walks for my aunt, I know I am worrying them, but I am also giving them hope we’ll figure something out,” said Warren. “I think they’ve been hanging on so long, knowing someone is still doing something and nobody has just stopped.”
Anyone who wants to help Warren with her walk or other work to find Ella Mae Begay can donate at gofund.me/69f122a5, or find more information on Facebook by searching for Trailing Ellamae.
Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @abecenti.
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