Colorado's new alert system is helping to locate missing Indigenous people
ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:
A national missing persons registry shows that Native American people are far more likely to be reported missing than other ethnic groups. The state of Colorado has now joined Washington state in issuing new alerts to try to help. Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom reports.
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MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: On a recent morning, a small search party huddles in a circle in a vacant parking lot south of Denver. Raven Payment kneels in the center as she lights a piece of sage on fire.
RAVEN PAYMENT: I just wanted to set the intention that we're going out to do this in a good way so that we can bring Rakel home to you and go from there. We'll find the happy ending at the end of the rainbow.
BLOOM: Earlier this year, Colorado launched a new statewide system to blast out alerts when Native people go missing. The special bulletins, kind of like Amber Alerts, go out on social media, highway signs and local media stations - and they've worked. Families have started to find relatives more quickly. Raven Payment is head of a grassroots group that organizes ground searches in Colorado. She says she's hopeful the alert will help today.
PAYMENT: In a lot of cases, too, we've seen where the alert goes out and a person is located within the next 24 hours.
BLOOM: They're looking for Rakel Morigeau-Reum. The 24-year-old came to Denver from her home on the Salish-Kootenai Reservation in Montana this spring to check herself into rehab for fentanyl addiction. A few weeks later, she left. She hasn't been heard from since, says her mother, Kelly Reum.
KELLY REUM: Rakel is a very kind person and friendly.
BLOOM: Reum's here unboxing a stack of paper printouts of the alert with her daughter's face on them. She's grateful for the alert, but getting it issued took a little longer than she hoped - about 12 hours after she reported Rakel missing. Plus, no one from law enforcement showed up today.
REUM: I wish there was a better turnout, but, you know, all we can do is go look and move on.
BLOOM: Advocates are often frustrated when working with law enforcement.
ANNITA LUCCHESI: Overwhelmingly, every jurisdiction across this country where a case has occurred, there is a family that has had a barrier to reporting a loved one missing.
BLOOM: Annita Lucchesi says families sometimes hesitate to reach out to local police due to lack of trust. She runs the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which manages the only nationwide database of missing Indigenous people.
LUCCHESI: It's great that the alert makes it out there, but I wonder how much behind-the-scenes advocacy the families have to engage in to get to that point.
BLOOM: U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Indigenous Laguna Pueblo, last year launched a new commission to research solutions to the missing Indigenous person crisis. It's holding hearings in several states now. In the case of Rakel Reum in Denver, the family searched at a train station and at a Motel 6. Kelly Reum, her mom, says she finally got a call from Rakel later that day.
REUM: And she was safe. Apparently, she was in - she was hiding in a tent downtown.
BLOOM: A police officer searching an alleyway asked a person he met for an ID. Because Rakel had an active alert out for her, she was found. It's not the end of the struggle that led her to go missing, though, says Raven Payment, the Colorado advocate.
PAYMENT: Eventually, we'll be taking a more proactive approach and preventing crisis and preventing violence, as opposed to just reacting to it after the fact.
BLOOM: Colorado's alert system is progress, Payment says. At least 15 people have been found this year. But it's just one piece of a solution to a much bigger crisis.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.