SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — In the three months since 62-year-old Navajo rug weaver Ella Mae Begay vanished, the haunting unanswered questions sometimes threaten to overwhelm her niece.
Seraphine Warren has organized searches of the vast Navajo Nation landscape near her aunt’s home in Arizona but is running out of money to pay for gas and food for the volunteers.
“Why is it taking so long? Why aren’t our prayers being answered?” she asks.
Begay is one of thousands of Indigenous women who have disappeared throughout the US Some receive no public attention at all, a disparity that extends to many other people of color.
The disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white 22-year-old woman who went missing in Wyoming last month during a cross-country trip with her boyfriend, has drawn a frenzy of coverage on traditional and social media, bringing new attention to a phenomenon known as “missing white woman syndrome.”
Many families and advocates for missing people of color are glad the attention paid to Petito’s disappearance has helped unearth clues that likely led to the tragic discovery of her body and they mourn with her family. But some also question why the public spotlight so important to finding missing people has left other cases shrouded in uncertainty.
“I would have liked that swift rush, push to find my aunt faster. That’s all I wish for,” said Warren, who lives in Utah, one of several states Petito and boyfriend Brian Laundrie passed through.
In Wyoming, where Petito was found, just 18% of cases of missing Indigenous women over the past decade had any media coverage, according to a state report released in January.
“Someone goes missing just about every day ... from a tribal community,” said Lynnette Grey Bull, who is Hunkpapa Lakota and Northern Arapaho and director of the organization Not Our Native Daughters. More than 700 Indigenous people disappeared in Wyoming between 2011 and 2020, and about 20% of those cases were still unsolved after a month. That’s about double the rate in the white population, the report found.
One factor that helped people connect with Petito’s case was her Instagram profile, where she lived her dream of traveling the country. Other social-media users contributed their own clues, including a traveling couple who said they spotted the couple’s white van in their own YouTube footage.