The first day that Jacqueline Whitman’s daughter didn’t come home, she wasn’t that worried. It was last summer, the Fourth of July. Twenty-six-year-old Ariel had headed out the day before with her boyfriend, who had picked her up at the three-bedroom house she shared with her mother, her grandfather, and five of her six siblings at the eastern edge of the Navajo reservation in Arizona. She called the next afternoon, telling Jacqueline she’d try to make it home for dinner. She didn’t, but she’d texted the family. (“You jerks,” it said. It was what she always affectionately called them.)
The second day that Ariel didn’t come home, she called her cousins, telling them she was in a town just off the reservation with some friends. But she didn’t call her sister Valya’s three-year-old son, which she usually did every day. On the third and fourth days that Ariel didn’t come home, she didn’t call anyone. And she wasn’t active on Facebook, which was highly unusual. She was always on Facebook. She didn’t respond to texts, and calls to her phone went straight to voicemail.
By the fifth day, Jacqueline was starting to panic. If Ariel didn’t come home that night, she decided, she was going to call the police. Valya made some posters with Ariel’s picture on them, but she didn’t put them up at first; she felt a little ridiculous. “She’s going to come home,” Valya kept thinking. “When Ariel comes home, she’s going to say, ‘Why did you do this? You’re silly.’”
But Ariel didn’t come home. Jacqueline called the police, and Valya put up the posters. More than a year later, there are still very few answers as to what happened to her.
In the Navajo Nation, which stretches across the northeastern corner of Arizona into Utah and New Mexico and is home to about 170,000 members of the Navajo tribe, people are disappearing — at least 25 in the last five years. The families who search for them say they’re being ignored by the tribal authorities who are supposed to help them. Law enforcement on the reservation — at 27,000 square miles, the largest area of tribal land in the country — says that it is spread thin to the point of tearing, plagued by a lack of personnel and the inability to commit proper resources to searching for the missing.
Indigenous people go missing at a higher rate than the general population. Activists argue that a legacy of racism in a country that devalues Native lives is limiting the attention and resources needed to confront a silent epidemic. A lack of funding, both for law enforcement and victims, along with poor criminal and demographic data collection, means that those who disappear may not even have the luxury of becoming a statistic — disappearances go unsolved and deaths go uncounted.
While missing persons have long been a concern in Native communities, in recent years activists from tribes across the country have been organizing marches, protests, and social media campaigns under the hashtag #MMIWG or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (in the Navajo Nation, where activists are quick to point out that men are also disappearing, they use #MMIR, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives). These activists are banding together with relatives of the missing, hoping to answer the questions that have been plaguing Jacqueline and other families: Why are people disappearing? And what is happening when they do?
On a bright day last January, I drove to Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, to meet Meskee Yatsayte, a Navajo woman who has emerged as the reservation’s leading advocate for families of the missing. She was standing on a dusty strip of ground along the main road through town, holding up a homemade banner with pictures of each missing person she has identified. At the top of the banner, in bright yellow letters, it said, “Have You Seen Us?”
About four years ago, Yatsayte, a friendly, no-nonsense woman with straight dark hair and a direct demeanor, started noticing lots of posts from people who were missing relatives on local Facebook groups. She googled “missing Navajo” and didn’t find anything. Then she googled “missing Native Americans.” She came across a website called Lost and Missing in Indian Country, which was attempting to collect and disseminate information on Native disappearances all over the U.S.
Yatsayte realized that the problem wasn’t confined to her tribe — Native Americans had gone missing in droves across the country. But she was surprised that there wasn’t much information on the disappearances. She wanted to know the extent of the problem in the Navajo Nation, and she began trying to collect numbers on her own, combing through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, sharing information with other activists outside the tribe, and posting updates on her personal Facebook page.
Soon families with missing relatives began reaching out to her for support, asking that she include information about their loved ones in her posts. She started a Facebook group called Navajo Nation Missing Persons Updates and worked to verify rumors through police reports or family members. Today the group has more than 10,000 followers.
It’s incredibly difficult to pin down exactly how many Native people are missing. In Canada, where the government has opened an official inquiry into the high rate at which Native women disappear, there are still no definitive numbers, despite the dedication of $53 million to the research. (It is unknown how much money, if any, the U.S. government has devoted to the issue.)
Eileen Luna-Firebaugh, the associate head of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona and a member of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, said that in the U.S., a transient population as well as friction between tribes and the federal government makes quantifying many Native issues difficult. “The federal government has not funded this type of research in Indian Country to any extent,” she told me. “And there’s a resistance to telling them how many of us there are and what’s going on. So the counts are notoriously bad.”
It’s incredibly difficult to pin down exactly how many Native people are missing.
On reservations, confusion over the reporting process and distrust of police can prevent families from going to authorities regarding missing persons. And of those who are reported, there’s no consistent means of data collection — cases aren’t regularly entered into national databases such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, which launched in 2007 and, if they are, the information isn’t always accurate.
Yatsayte says she has seen reports in which Native Americans are identified as Hispanic. The National Crime Information Center, a crime database specifically for law enforcement that includes information on missing persons, also doesn’t keep consistent data on Native Americans; though the system has been used for more than five decades, many tribes, including the Navajo Nation, only gained access in the last two years.
As a result, the task of piecing together information and compiling data has fallen to activists. Through her work, Yatsayte has identified 36 missing Navajo, 15 of them women, though it’s hard to state with certainty whether that number is complete. Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral candidate at the University of Lethbridge in Canada and a member of the Southern Cheyenne Nation, maintains one of the most comprehensive databases on missing and murdered Native women in the U.S. and Canada. Her current count identifies 47 missing Navajo women, the vast majority having disappeared since 2013 (she does not track men).
By comparison, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System currently lists 295 non-Native women missing from Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, the states from which Lucchesi says that 47 women disappeared. But the system’s numbers aren’t always reliable, and it’s less stark than the picture that arises where good data does exist: in Montana, which maintains a database of missing people regularly updated by law enforcement, Native Americans make up nearly 29 percent of missing people in the state, but less than 7 percent of the population.
Yatsayte and volunteers, often joined by families of the missing, have regular “pop-ups” around the reservation to raise awareness of the issue and bring attention to those missing. They hold up their banner, pass out booklets with information on missing individuals, and talk to community members. In Window Rock, I asked Yatsayte about the most common reaction she encounters. She said people usually say they’d heard someone on the banner was missing, but assumed they’d been found. People are stunned by the number of unsolved cases. And someone almost always mentions that they know somebody who disappeared.
A few minutes later, a man ambled up, dressed in a stained brown jacket and a brown watch cap, holding a McDonald’s coffee cup.
“What are you guys doing?” he asked.
Yatsayte explained while he studied the faces on the banner.
“One of my buddies…” he said. “His name is Harrison? Craig?”
“He’s on here,” Yatsayte said. She pointed to a poster: Craig Alden Harrison, missing since September 2013.
“We were firefighters together,” the man said. “They told me he was gone.”
Generally, missing persons cases are complicated by the fact that adults have a right to disappear. “It’s not illegal for an adult to leave,” Beth Alberts of the Texas Center for the Missing told me. “It’s not as difficult to disappear as you might think.”
That’s particularly true for Native Americans, especially on reservations, where far-flung communities and extreme poverty mean people move often, looking for work. “It’s really hard to get a handle on this stuff,” said Luna-Firebaugh. “Are they simply falling off the radar and going into urban areas where we’re losing touch with them?”
Dale West, the acting director of the Navajo Nation’s Department of Criminal Investigation, said that the tribe’s police force gets about 300 calls for missing people each year. Unless there is immediate evidence of foul play, cases are typically classified as runaways, meaning the missing person likely left on their own volition. The vast majority of these cases resolve themselves, usually fairly quickly. “Generally what happens is they turn up a day or two later,” West told me. “Once they get their phone recharged, they’ll contact their family and let them know they’re okay.”
Yatsayte says she has seen reports in which Native Americans are identified as Hispanic.
The Navajo Nation police department is desperately understaffed and short of resources. There are only about 200 officers for more than 27,000 square miles, which means it can sometimes take hours for an officer to respond to a call. Filling open positions is difficult: the criminal investigative unit is only staffed at about 50 percent. And unlike other law-enforcement agencies, the criminal investigative department doubles as the tribe’s coroners, no small feat in a community where in recent years the homicide rate has reached more than four times the national average.
Some missing persons cases resolve themselves when remains are found; often, these deaths result from a combination of exposure and substance abuse. Only about 10 cases each year make their way from the police department to the criminal investigation department, which investigates potential felonies — in the case of missing people, this is generally when foul play is suspected.
But crimes in Indian Country are notoriously underreported, so those numbers are likely low. And people disappearing without evidence of foul play doesn’t necessarily mean everything is fine. Caroline LaPorte, a senior policy advisor at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, told me that it’s unusual for women in particular to go away without telling anybody, leaving behind their support system and resources. Such disappearances can be indicative of abuse or other trouble.
Only about 10 cases each year make their way from the reservation’s police department to its criminal investigation department.
Meskee Yatsayte’s efforts in the Navajo Nation aren’t limited to missing women, and her numbers show that they’re not the only ones disappearing. “We need to concentrate on our men, women, children, LGBTQ-Two Spirit relatives, all of us,” she said. “We’re all one.”
But anger over missing persons in the broader Native community has tended to focus on women, who are particularly affected by an epidemic of gendered violence that likely plays a role in many disappearances. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than the general population. The prevalence of sexual violence, compounded by the difficult economic conditions on the reservation, makes Native women vulnerable to human trafficking, said Lynnette Grey Bull, the founder of the non-profit Not Our Native Daughters.
Abuse can lead women to run away, where they can be easily targeted by traffickers. An initiative at Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research found that more than three-quarters of Indigenous trafficking victims in its study had been in violent relationships. It’s a figure that is indicative of the prevalence of domestic violence on reservations — rates can be up to 10 times higher than elsewhere in the U.S.
Katczinzki Ariel Begay’s family called her Ariel, after the Little Mermaid, and although the Navajo Nation is landlocked, it was a fitting name. She adored fishing and seafood, and she’d challenge her brothers to eat strange things like octopus. Slightly built, with straight dark hair and an infectious grin, she was the oldest of Jacqueline’s seven children. She loved to cook, and her gregariousness meant she ended up in charge of most holiday events, roping people into helping her in the kitchen and making everyone pose for a constant stream of photos.
Ariel left the reservation when she was 20. She moved four hours away to Phoenix, where she studied to become a medical assistant. But even from afar, her family remained at the center of her life. Her siblings took turns visiting her over summer vacations. The evening that Valya went into labor with her son, Ariel drove home, getting there just after her new nephew was born. She sat through the night in Valya’s hospital room, holding the baby in her arms. In the very early morning, she got in her car and drove back to Phoenix to make it to class.
Two years before she disappeared, Ariel moved back to her grandfather’s in Oak Springs, a scattering of houses and trailers on the eastern part of the reservation. Valya was moving into her own house with her new family, and Ariel came home to help take care of her younger siblings and her nephew. She shared a room with her six-year-old sister and her mother, sleeping next to Jacqueline on a queen-sized mattress. In the mornings, Jacqueline would roll over to hug her.
“Sometimes it was ‘Mom, you’re in my bubble,’” Jacqueline said. “But most of the time it was ‘Mom, I love you.’”
Ariel got a job at the Oak Springs Chapter House, a local community center and town hall where she’d worked on-and-off since high school. It was there, in the summer of 2016 that Ariel met a man named Shaun Hale. He was also from the Navajo Nation, and he worked part-time as a custodian and handyman at the house. They started dating. Something about him made Valya nervous. She didn’t want him around her son, and she started to see a little less of her sister. Then, in April of 2017, Hale allegedly assaulted Ariel.
“She was beaten beyond recognition,” Jacqueline said. She told me Shaun broke Ariel’s ribs, wrist, nose, and cheeks, and that she had brain bleeds in three separate locations. She was airlifted to a hospital in Flagstaff. Hale was charged with reckless assault, suffocation, and strangulation; he is currently awaiting trial.
After two weeks in the hospital, Ariel returned to Oak Springs and Jacqueline nursed her back to health. There were days she couldn’t get out of bed, but slowly, she started to heal. She had begun hanging out with Lyle Whitehair, a brother of one of her friends. On July 3, 2017, she felt well enough to go out with him.
On the Fourth of July, Lyle later told Valya, Ariel had started hallucinating. Lyle and Ariel had gone to Sanders, a town just off the reservation, for the holiday parade. Ariel became convinced her mother and brothers were over a nearby hill; she began talking to people who weren’t there. Her family told me she hadn’t hallucinated before, although she experienced brain bleeds after Hale assaulted her, which could have caused the episode. The police report from her disappearance suggests she may also have been intoxicated.
Lyle called an ambulance, but Ariel refused medical treatment. Instead, she asked the police officer who arrived with the ambulance, a non-reservation cop from nearby Apache County, to drop her off in Lupton, on the reservation’s southern border, 12 miles from her grandfather’s home.
When she got to Lupton, Ariel called a friend, Jason Edsitty, to give her a ride back to Sanders. When he picked her up, Jason told police, she seemed like she was drunk. He said he could give her a lift halfway to Sanders to a place called Allentown, but she’d need to find someone else to take her the rest of the way. In a parking lot in Allentown, Jason waited with her until a gray Jeep pulled up. He didn’t know who was inside. Ariel got out of Jason’s car and into the Jeep. It was the last time anyone saw her.
After the five days she waited for Ariel to come home, Jacqueline filed a missing persons report with the Navajo Nation Police Department. But days kept passing and she didn’t hear anything from the police. So she and her father, Jackie Chischilly, started to talk about what they could do on their own. They raised money selling sno cones and tacos out of Valya’s house, stood at intersections with posters, and plastered local towns with fliers. Meskee Yatsayte saw posts about Ariel on Facebook, and she reached out to Valya to offer her group’s support. “They were one of the most active families I have ever encountered,” she told me.
Two weeks after Jacqueline reported Ariel missing, the family organized a march to the Navajo Nation tribal council offices; about 25 people showed up for the two-mile walk. When they arrived, the Nation’s vice president, Jonathan Nez, came out to invite them to meet with him and his staff. Not long after, Jacqueline got a call. Ariel’s case had been assigned a criminal investigator.
That it took a march to the vice president’s office to have an investigator assigned to the case was, in the family’s mind, emblematic of something that had been bothering them since Ariel had disappeared: it didn’t seem like the police cared.
This feeling was common among families of the missing I spoke with on the reservation. Kim Katso, whose sister Shannon Miles went missing in January of 2017 (her remains were found five months later), told me that when her family hired a private investigator a month after they reported Shannon missing, they learned that a police report had never been filed. Devena Thomas, whose brother Duane Thomas disappeared in 2014, decided to stop passing on information to investigators because she felt like her brother’s case didn’t matter to them.
“If I were to tell the Navajo Nation, what would they do about it?” she asked.
But the reality of Ariel’s case, Dale West told me, was that, at the time, it didn’t warrant a criminal investigator; after the march, one had been assigned as a courtesy. Ariel had left on her own; she’d been calling around for rides; there was no tangible evidence she’d been kidnapped. And though she’d been assaulted earlier, the perpetrator was behind bars.
In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the violent crime rate on the reservation was three times the national average, a statistic that aligned with the stories I heard. This means that reservation police officers are constantly triaging. Aggravated assaults are the most common problem they face, followed by sexual assaults, and then homicides. When an investigator has to choose between investigating a murder and talking with a family worried about a missing person, West told me, the dead body is going to take precedence. “They’re always going to have to respond to an immediate crisis that comes up,” he said of his investigators.
The tribe has been working to bridge the gap between families of the missing and the realities of policing on the reservation since Ariel’s disappearance. Last summer, the Navajo Nation passed an anti-trafficking bill, one of the very few in Indian Country. The bill officially criminalizes trafficking on the reservation (previously, it had been illegal federally, but not locally) and pledges support to law enforcement and victims. And Navajo Nation leaders proclaimed last March Navajo Nation Missing Persons Awareness Month. It was the first official public recognition of the issue, declaring tribal support for families of the missing and their advocates.
After Ariel’s family marched to his offices, Nez began been hosting monthly meetings on the disappearances to help foster a dialogue between activists, families of the missing, and public officials. At a meeting with families and investigators in January, Nez spoke about the possibility of setting money aside for public safety and designating a missing-persons investigator. Yatsayte says that idea is still under development, though she is beginning to see other results. In May, the tribe paid for three full-page ads in the Gallup Independent, the local paper in Gallup, New Mexico, showing photos of the 32 missing Navajo her group had identified at the time and where they were last seen.
“If I were to tell the Navajo Nation, what would they do about it?”
Ariel’s family joined Yatsayte at the meetings, but they also kept searching on their own. Rumors made their way to the family, and Jacqueline tried to run them down. She crisscrossed the reservation, canvassing towns where people said they had seen Ariel. She wondered if Shaun’s friends had taken her. She worried that Ariel’s injuries had affected her thinking. One day at the laundromat, a woman Jacqueline didn’t know approached her and said she had overheard someone saying, “I heard the family of the missing girl is still searching. They should check Bowman’s Park in an area with red sand.” The park was less than three miles from Jacqueline’s house; she went there but found no trace of her daughter.
Then, on a warm day last October, the case’s criminal investigator showed up at Jacqueline’s house; she told her that they’d found remains and that she needed a DNA sample. For a moment, all Jacqueline could think to do was scream. But she fought the urge and silently opened her mouth. The investigator scraped the inside of her cheek with a swab and told her she would return the following afternoon.
Jacqueline stayed up all night, praying. In the morning, her family came to wait with her for answers. The day wore on slowly, but the investigator didn’t come. In the evening, the house started to empty, and at nine, Jacqueline was thinking about going to sleep.
And then, suddenly, in the dark, headlights bounced along the dirt road that cut up from Indian Route 12.
“Maybe they’re bringing her home,” Jacqueline thought. “Maybe she’s in the backseat.”
Jacqueline watched through the window as the investigator came up the stairs to the house. She knocked, and then opened the door and stepped inside. Jacqueline stayed frozen next to the TV. She told Jacqueline the remains were Ariel’s.
In the following months, rumors worked their way back to Jacqueline: that Ariel was strangled to death; only her torso and head were found; three men had been picked up in connection with the case.
When I asked Jacqueline what she thought had happened to Ariel, she was quiet for a long time. “I think she ran into the wrong people,” she said finally, her voice a whisper. “They did something to her.”
After Ariel’s body was found, it was taken to the office of the medical investigator in New Mexico. Ten months later, her remains were finally returned to her family. They still don’t know the cause of her death, and other questions remain. If she was murdered, who did it, and why? What happened in the time between when she got into the gray Jeep and when she died? And where are all the others who have disappeared?
Jacqueline won’t get answers. At the end of May she had a seizure; a few hours later, she died. In the months since, Valya has been scrambling, caring for her own two children along with her younger siblings. She says no progress has been made on Ariel’s case; when she calls the police for an update, she’s told the case is still under investigation. Recently, Yatsayte made new posters asking for help solving Ariel’s case and hung them around the reservation. At the bottom is a hashtag: #JacquelinesWish.
Last month, on the one-year anniversary of her disappearance, Ariel’s family and friends gathered at Querino Canyon Bridge, where her body had been found. It’s only about 15 miles from Jacqueline’s house in Oak Springs. During their searches, Jacqueline and Valya each drove over it twice. It’s surrounded by empty, rough land, studded with jagged rocks and scrubby yellow grass. The bridge spans a canyon so sudden and deep you don’t see it until you’re nearly on the bridge itself; at the bottom, where the steel piers meet their concrete bases, the ground is littered with refuse. The group counted down from five, and then released purple and white balloons into the sky. The wind carried them up and south along the canyon to where the traffic rolled by on I-40, just off the reservation.