Debbie Nez-Manuel was 3 years old when her mother disappeared from their home on the Navajo Nation. She turned up dead a few weeks later about an hour's drive away in Gallup, New Mexico.
So Nez-Manuel was overjoyed more than four decades later when the Arizona House of Representatives agreed this week to study the problem of Native American women who have gone missing or been killed. She said it felt like an early Mother's Day present for the mom she never knew, Frances Tsinnajinnie, who died at age 35.
"I can breathe easier knowing I did everything I could to honor my mother's life," Nez-Manuel wrote on her Facebook page after the vote Thursday. "I think she will rest for years to come. Happy Mother's Day."
The bill sponsored by state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, a Democrat from the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, passed the House 28-0, with two members not voting. It was approved by the state Senate earlier and now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey for his signature.
The national campaign to identify cases of Native American women and girls who have been killed or gone missing has gained momentum in recent months with a string of similar state and federal legislation, marches and a series of stories by The Associated Press . The issue was little publicized in the past, even though federal studies have shown Native American women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
A 2018 study from the Urban Indian Health Institute showed Arizona with the third-highest number of missing and killed indigenous women and girls in U.S. urban areas. Fifty-four of the recorded known 506 cases studied were in Arizona, 31 in Tucson alone, and more than 150 cases were in the Southwest overall. The Seattle-based nonprofit said it obtained its data through public records requests and a review of media reports.
The campaign to focus attention on the crimes prompted U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego and Raul Grijalva of Arizona to join a group of 17 members of Congress from around the West who are calling on the Governmental Accountability Office to find better ways to track cases and improve coordination among law enforcement.
Nez-Manuel, now 47, acknowledged that creating a committee is a small step, but she said it feels huge for someone from a community where the issue has been rarely discussed out loud.
"It took many years for us to get to this point," said Nez-Manuel, who often worries about the safety of her three daughters.
Raised by her mother's sisters, and eventually a foster family, Nez-Manuel said relatives ignored most of her many questions about her mother and never talked about how she died. About all she knows is that her mother was killed and the person responsible was never caught.
Nez-Manuel was accompanied to the Capitol by her husband, retired firefighter Royce Manuel, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale, where the couple lives. Royce Manuel is also involved in Native American issues as a cultural historian and educator on the reservation.
Other Native American women activists in the House gallery Thursday included April Ignacio of the Tohono O'odham Nation, chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party Native American Caucus and founder of Indivisible Tohono, and Elaynne Gregg, whose young daughter was killed a decade ago.