WATERFLOW, N.M. — The sky was dotted yellow, Ashlynne Mike’s favorite color, as family and friends released dozens of balloons on Saturday. Nearly two years after her death, a community turned out to remember the 11-year-old Navajo girl now named for a new law intended to address child abductions across Indian country.
In May 2016, a stranger lured Mike from her bus stop after school, raped her and left her for dead. Her kidnapping occurred on the land of the Navajo Nation. An Amber Alert wasn’t issued until 12 hours later. According to a study on child abductions by the Washington state Attorney General’s Office, 76 percent of kidnapped children are killed within the first three hours.
Until last week, tribal law enforcement agencies had to work through state and local police agencies to get an Amber Alert posted.
On Friday, President Donald Trump signed the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert for Indian Country Act, which gives tribes direct access to federal grants to improve their technology and be able to post Amber Alerts on their own.
“In the beginning, I did not know there were not Amber Alerts for tribes,” her father Gary Mike said at the memorial event on Saturday. “I always assumed that this alert would be available to all of our children, and to find out this wasn’t in place when Ashlynne went missing was an impetus for everyone that this needed to be put in place.”
Mike credited his former wife and Ashlynne’s mother, Pamela Foster, for meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and pushing to get the legislation passed.
While tribal advocates view the new law as progress, they say the overall tribal justice system, where law enforcement is chronically underfunded, understaffed and undertrained, needs to undergo review.
Ashlynne Mike’s killer, Tom Begaye Jr., was quickly apprehended and sentenced to life in prison in October. But swift justice in Indian country is not considered the norm. Critics say a porous system of policing exists among tribal, state and federal authorities, allowing perpetrators to evade punishment for violent crimes committed on tribal lands.
“Crime is something that, in this country, is dealt with on a local level,” said Sarah Deer, a legal scholar and citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation. “But the ability for tribes to respond to crime has been severely limited by the federal government.”
Deer described jurisdictional hurdles as a “maze of injustice” that has stymied policing in tribal communities like the Navajo Nation.
The National Congress of American Indians says one of the most significant issues with Department of Justice funding is it pits more bureaucratically advanced tribes capable of writing winning grant proposals against others that might be less so.
The group also criticized the tribal justice system for a lack of federal oversight whenever tribes receive grants.
The Government Accountability Office and the Office of the Inspector General have each called for improved reporting on how grant funding is spent by tribes, including the need for better data collection.
Before Ashlynne Mike was killed, the Navajo Nation had twice received Department of Justice funding to begin implementing an Amber Alert system on the reservation, but both times had failed to do so.
A 2017 civil suit filed by Mike’s father against the tribe and its Division of Public Safety and Department of Law Enforcement claims that two grants from the DOJ — $330,000 in 2007 and $357,000 in 2011 — were intended for the installation of an Amber Alert system and enhancing technology on the reservation. Instead, the suit alleges that the funds were used for other projects and employee bonuses, and in one instance, nearly $180,000 reportedly was returned to the DOJ.
“I know the passing of Ashlynne has opened the eyes of so many of us to all the things that we really do need in Indian country,” Gary Mike said. “I”m sad that it had to happen to my family to spur this kind of awareness.”