Over the past two weeks, the nation has been gripped by the disappearance of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito.
But one group of Americans is paying extra close attention because of all the tragedies in their community.
Indigenous Americans, specifically the families of murdered or missing indigenous people — some who vanished from the same exact area Petito was found — hope all the attention paid to the Long Island native’s case will help put their own cases on the national radar.
Chelsea Hunter’s 19-year-old sister, Sierra, disappeared in Oklahoma in April. Sierra is one face of an epidemic of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the United States.
Nicole Wagon, of Wyoming, lost two daughters — one was murdered in 2019, and another was found dead in 2020.
Denae Shanidiin, of Utah, has devoted herself to raising awareness of the issue since her aunt Priscilla was murdered more than three decades ago. That case is still unsolved.
“We all have relatives who have gone missing or who have been murdered,” Shanidiin said. “Currently, there are thousands of unsolved cases. And the response from the FBI, law enforcement is often they don’t have the resources to solve these cases.”
And then a case like Gabby Petito’s disappearance captures the nation’s attention.
“We’re seeing this extraordinary display of resources and attention on this one girl,” Shanidiin said. “And we have to fight for that kind of attention in that recognition of our pain every single day. And it’s so exhausting.”
Statistics show Indigenous women go missing at 10 times the national average and the vast majority of disappearances and murders are never solved.
According to research, distrust of law enforcement means some cases aren’t reported promptly. Stereotypes and prejudice can also lead to a delayed or limited investigation. And jurisdictional conflicts mean white suspects often aren’t held accountable for crimes on tribal lands.
However, thanks to tireless efforts by victims’ families — through demonstrations and demands for change — many states are enacting legislation to address the issue and fund investigations. Families are hoping the measures can solve or at least mitigate the ongoing wave of murders and disappearances.