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Four Corners Prayer Run advocates for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Runners and supporters of the Four Corners Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Prayer Run arrived at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Teepee Village Saturday.
Runners and advocates soldiered through Cortez Friday and Saturday

It is Melanie Marie James’ 30th birthday July 5. She’ll likely have a candlelight vigil.

From Farmington, Marie is a “goofball,” said her mom, Leila Mailman.

But she’s been missing for eight years.

James’ is one of the missing Indigenous women for whom runners and advocates traversed 232 miles in the Four Corners Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Prayer Run this week, beginning and ending in Montezuma Creek, Utah.

A runner in the Four Corners Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Prayer Run jogging toward the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Teepe Village Saturday.

James is Walker River Paiute, Comanche and Navajo.

“She liked to joke, she liked to meet people, and any way she could help anybody, she would do it,” Mailman said.

The positive memories caused Mailman to break out into a smile, but they only briefly assuaged the tears that the recount of her ongoing nightmare triggered.

James was out applying for jobs in 2014 when she went missing.

Mailman went to the police department to report James’s disappearance.

“She has to be gone 48 hours,” an officer told her.

“It has been past 48 hours,” Mailman replied.

Advocate Brandy Martinez holds a sign with information on Melanie Marie James.

The clock started from the time Mailman walked into his office, the officer told her.

“I see other young girls out there, and I always wonder where she’s at,” Mailman said.

A purse likely belonging to James was turned into the police, containing blood, two phones and a letter with James’ name on it.

But police don’t know if it’s stolen evidence, and Mailman still hasn’t received clarity from the finding as a result, she said.

Two weeks ago, Mailman received a warrant listing James as a victim of domestic violence in March 2014.

No further information was provided.

“’We don't know, we're going to look into it’ – but that's all they keep telling me,” Mailman said.

Mailman speaks about her daughter at every event she can, despite her constant emotional and physical fatigue.

“Pretty much only prayers,” provide comfort, she said.

She wakes up and goes to bed praying, hopeful still.

“You need to slow down,’” her three kids tell her.

But she’s not planning on it.

James’ disappearance is hard on her siblings. They have moments where they “fall apart” – even from something as simple as hearing a song that reminds them of their vanished sister.

Brandy Martinez advocates for missing Indigenous women, and urges disappearances to be reported as soon as possible to any officer who will file a report.

“One thing I'm finding out is a lot of whether they even get reported missing is up to the opinions of the officer …” Martinez said. “So if the officer doesn't deem that person has been missing, if they think they’re a runaway, if there's possibly drugs involved, if they have a certain lifestyle, they won't report them missing.”

She doesn’t want mothers like Mailman to feel alone.

“We hear her story. We see Melanie’s picture. We're not going to stop searching ever. So Lela's not alone anymore,” Martinez said.

The run wound through Southwest Colorado, where subfreezing temperatures lingered from one of the biggest storms in years.

Cars carrying supporters, some adorned in tribal gear, stopped and started along the route, waving flags and poles of support.

Joining the caravan of vehicles was Michael Vernon Shortey, an Indigenous artist from Beshbitoh Valley, Arizona, who ran about 15 miles the first day of the event.

Planted along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 160, cold wind funneling from cars and trucks buzzing by feet away, Shortey made sure to tape down the corners of the poster on his rear windshield to effectively amplify the message: “Slow Down For MMIW.”

Michael Vernon Shortey, an Indigenous artist from Beshbitoh Valley, Arizona, largely lives on the road supporting causes like the Four Corners Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Prayer Run.

Tacked at the bottom of the poster, a “missing” flyer picturing his uncle Lance Dee Dennis fluttered.

In this way, the prayer run “hit home,” Shortey said.

Shortey’s uncle went missing about a month ago. Searches for him lasted for six days in Arizona – to no avail. A police investigation is underway, and foul play is suspected.

Shortey has largely lived on the road for the past eight years, traveling to reservations across the country and participating in similar events.

“I just save, save, save and then hit the road wherever they need help with anything,” he said. “I try to stay away from the protesting now – just be more on the positive.”

Members of other reservations are just as much his family as members of his own Navajo tribe, he said.

Pascha Nierenhausen and Cecil Palore traveled from Winterland, California for the prayer run.

Pascha Nierenhausen and Cecil Palore traveled 10 hours from Winterland, California, to rally behind the runners.

“We lay down our lives to sacrifice, to raise awareness for the lost,” Nierenhausen said, the fire in her eyes matching her tribal attire.

The runners and advocates were blessed at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Teepee Village, where they entered a fire circle from the east. Tribal elders thudded drums and murmured songs of appreciation and hope. Attendees filed one by one to stand before Tribal Elder Terry Knight Sr., who fanned them with prayer.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous People

Tribal Council members and event coordinators gave speeches.

“Women bring life into this world. They're very sacred to us. We need to respect them in that way,” said Tribe Chairman Manuel addressing the crowd. “We as 574 tribes that are recognized in this country … we need to be able to have that voice. Legislative-wise, we need that support.”

He called for more government action, including increasing police presence on tribal reservations.

For instance, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, spanning 600,000 acres across three states, has only about five officers, he said.

He referenced the August disappearance of Gabby Petito, whose remains were found in Wyoming, where boyfriend Brian Laundrie strangled her while the pair were traveling across the country in a van.

Several speakers, Heart among them, declared all missing person cases tragedies, regardless of gender or ethnicity.

“But when it comes to our Native women, Native children, there's hardly any media coverage, there’s hardly any law enforcement having a search and rescue to cooperate with different organizations,” Heart said.

Native American women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average and three times more than white women, run organizer Martina Maryboy said.

The National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls as of 2016. In comparison, the U.S Department of Justice tallied 116 cases in its missing National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

“We found out this morning that one of the girls that we've been looking for, they found her remains and the family was notified last night, which is just one more slap in the face as to why need to be out there searching faster,” Martinez told the crowd.

She urged onlookers to train in search and rescue and aid police efforts.

“We shouldn't have families that are waiting eight years to find the loved ones,” she said. “I believe the latest number I heard is, if we have someone out there searching within the first 48 hours were 75% more likely to find that personal alive.”

After encouragement from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the champions for Indigenous voices voyaged on to Beclabito, New Mexico.

Though they were somber, they were optimistic.

Michael Vernon Shortey’s uncle, Lance Dee Dennis.

The flyer picturing Shortey’s uncle, now partially torn, blows in the winter wind as it travels along the highway.

James’ police report is less than a page long.