NATIVE AMERICAN YOUTH ILLUMINATES THE PATH TO PROTECTING CHILDREN IN INDIAN COUNTRY

It took only a few minutes for 10-year old Ashton Fish to express for everyone at the 2017 AMBER Alert Symposium, through both word and dance, why everything possible must be done to protect missing and abducted children in Indian Country.

“I want to be the voice for all the Indian children,” said Fish. “I want the AMBER Alert to be on the reservation so none of our children can go missing, no one can steal our children and we won’t be afraid to walk in the dark.”

The young man then performed a traditional dance for all missing children. Fish first became aware of the issue of for Native American children when he heard about the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike on the Navajo Reservation in May 2016. Fish created a YouTube video (https://youtu.be/vStdaD1zq_g) to perform a dance in honor of Ashlynne Mike and to plead for all parents to watch over their children.

“I have been called by the Spirits to come around here and dance for Ashlynne Mike and all the other stolen kids,” said Fish on the video. “I dedicate this song for all the children, the aunts who are sad. Aho!”

Fish is a member of the Assiniboine Nation and traveled from Blackfoot, Idaho, to speak and dance at the symposium. His grandmother, Kristen Lowdog, said her grandson’s dancing is a good way for Native Americans to combat this problem because it involves their own culture and ways.

“He is very spiritually mature and voices his opinion out,” said Lowdog. “He has a big heart and he wants to do what he can to help.”

The artistry of Ashton’s expression of dance, combined with the wisdom of his words and vision for AMBER Alert’s protection of children on tribal lands, left symposium participants eager to meet this young man and shake his hand following the presentation.

Ashton and his grandmother presented AATTAP Program Administrator Jim Walters with a handmade ceremonial quilt in honor of his work with AMBER Alert and Child Protection in Indian Country.

CHALLENGES IN INDIAN COUNTRY

AATTAP director Jim Walters has been working for years to help bring training and resources to Indian Country. Although much has been accomplished, he said most tribes do not have what is needed to slow the tide of missing and abducted children from their communities.

“Child abductions are down in the U.S. with one exception, and that is in Indian Country,” said Walters. “Children in Indian Country are especially vulnerable.”

Walters emphasized the problem of lacking data on missing and abducted children from tribal lands, noting the actual numbers are unknown because no federal or Native American agency is collecting that information.

Walters cited the murder of Ashlynne Mike as a tragic example of the challenges being faced in Indian Country. When Ashlynne was first discovered missing on May 3, 2016, her brother ran two-and-a-half miles to find a car with a phone—but the phone did not work. Twelve hours into the investigation, authorities were still unclear whether the state or the tribe should issue an AMBER Alert.

“Our priority is to save lives,” said Walters. “We can work out the jurisdictional issues later.”

The Navajo Nation is now working with Arizona and Utah to improve the AMBER Alert program on the reservation.

Walters offered other examples of unique challenges in Indian Country.

  • The unique history of cultural intervention and jurisdictional complexities
  • High turnover and lack of staffing
  • Lack of understanding of Indian Child Welfare laws
  • Use of the internet to lure Native American children away from their homes, yet these children are most often reported as runaways

Ashlynne Mike’s case did bring to light one very strong feature of Native American communities – they have the best trackers in the world. Walters gave examples of the superior skill and coordination tribal law enforcement and community members demonstrate when conducting searches. He discussed other child protection efforts and collaborative approaches that can help make a difference in Native American community efforts to prevent child exploitation and abduction.

  • Needs assessments should and will continue to be conducted in more than 100 Native American communities
  • State and community strategies with strong leadership from the tribal government must be developed
  • Child Abduction Response Teams (CARTs) comprised of tribal, state and federal agencies should be championed, developed and maintained
  • Prevention education in elementary schools and additional training for law enforcement should be developed as a key component of a comprehensive child protection strategy

“Children are a precious resource,” said Walters. “We have to take a tribal approach where every member is responsible for the community. We want to assure the victim’s family and community that all resources are utilized in the successful recovery of a child.”

More information about child protection resources available for Indian Country can be found at the Tribal Database website – https://www.tribaldatabase.org.

Much Progress Made; Much More Progress Needed

This past May 25th I was honored to attend National Missing Children’s Day ceremony in Washington D.C. I was also honored by hosting a victim family from Indian Country. Their personal loss has given purpose and meaning to what you and I strive to do every day - keep our children safe. 

I have attended many Missing Children’s Day ceremonies over the years, and each time I am saddened by what I know has taken place, yet also elated by the law enforcement and other individuals whose efforts became successes. Since the inception of AMBER Alert almost 900 children have been rescued and recovered alive; and that my friends is light years from where we were just a few short years ago.

Imagine if you will that a few years ago, you and a stranger are running together into a police station at the same time due to emergencies and you both need immediate help. Exhausted and out of breath, the stranger gets there a split second sooner than you and he says to the officer “My horse has been stolen!” The officer takes his information and begins the department’s standard operating procedure for stolen horses. Then the officer asks what he can do for you and you spurt out “My child has been stolen!” The officer takes information from you then asks “Have you checked with you neighbors, or grandma’s house, or at some of your child’s friends’ houses? Don’t worry, they’ll probably show up soon.”  It is at that moment you realize law enforcement had a standard operating procedure for stolen animals, but not stolen children.

In the not so distant past, police could enter information about stolen cars, stolen guns, even stolen horses into the FBI's crime database – but not stolen children.

 In 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared from a New York street on his way to school. Soon after that, 29 children and young adults were found murdered in Atlanta. In 1981, 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Florida shopping mall and later found murdered. Our nation at that time was slowly waking up to the fact that more and more children were becoming targeted by morally ruthless predators.

Over the next few years with the combined assistance of victim parents, such as Adam Walsh’s parents John and Reve Walsh, the support of former past Presidents, the U.S. Congress, many dedicated law enforcement professionals and child advocate organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, we now have a series of important laws relating to swift and comprehensive response to missing, abducted and sexually exploited children. And we have the AMBER Alert; a best-practice standard operating procedures for a coordinated response between law enforcement, the media, transportation and the public when a child is abducted. These laws and innovative, grass-roots programs such as AMBER Alert, form a bedrock upon which to stand in the fight to identify and interdict those who would seek to harm our children, and to find and safely recover children who go missing or are abducted.

In 1996, the AMBER Alert System got its beginnings in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, when broadcasters teamed with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children. AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. The acronym was created as a legacy to 9- year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and brutally murdered.

Every May 25th, the anniversary of Etan Patz's disappearance, the Nation observes Missing Children's Day.  National Missing Children's Day honors lay people and law enforcement alike that have aided and assisted in the recovery of missing children. This special day is a reminder to all parents, guardians, families and communities that every child deserves a safe childhood.

I encourage you and your tribal organization to become a working part of AMBER Alert in Indian Country.  We may not be able to save every child that goes missing but we now have the means to make rescue and recovery possible.

Whether you are a law enforcement officer, teacher, social worker or serving in a similar child protection and advocacy role, I believe it is urgent that we keep child safety at the forefront of our efforts. We do this together, through collaboration, through community, through supporting one another in working hard and to remaining strong as we fight to protect our children.

It has been documented that the great Sioux leader Sitting Bull was quoted as saying, “For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”

My AMBER Alert in Indian Country colleagues and I look forward to sharing our experiences with you, and more importantly, learning from you and your community as we venture forward together.

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Do Na Da Go huh I (Doe Naw Daw Go Huh ee).


UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN.

Ron Gurley M.S. Ed.

Cherokee