Navajo police claim they were 'left in dark' by FBI crimefighting initiative
To battle rising violent crime in the sprawling Navajo nation, the FBI has implemented what may be one of the most innovative outreach initiatives in the bureau’s history,
But the Navajo law enforcement authorities say they have been left in the dark.
In 2020, the FBI began circulating suspect and missing persons bulletins in the Navajo (or Diné) language as a first step in what some consider a long-overdue move to deploy indigenous languages in tribal crime investigations.
The move has high priority due to the disproportionately high rate of missing and murdered indigenous women.
But Navajo Chief of Police Daryl Noon says the initiative was unilaterally developed without his department’s input.
Noon said in an interview that while the bilingual effort was appreciated, “I did not participate in any discussions related to this initiative by the FBI.”
Similarly, Michael Henderson, Director of the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigation, which typically works closely with the FBI in violent crime cases, says he too was unaware of the development of the program, and adds it’s still unclear how it will be implemented. .
“I did not learn about it until I saw a posting,” says Henderson. “I don’t know to what extent this campaign impacts tribal coordination in investigations.”
The spokesman for the FBI Albuquerque Field Office denies the Navajo Nation Police Department was not made aware of the poster program.
“When we kicked off our Navajo poster campaign two years ago, NPD was totally in the loop,” says Frank Fisher, field office spokesman. “Then-Chief Francisco even gave media interviews about it, and we presented the posters to President Nez when we visited him in Window Rock last year,”
Subsequently, there has been no follow up with the current NPD command structure.
The traditional language is still widely spoken, not only in conversation but on no less than two regional radio stations
By federal statute, the FBI is responsible for the investigation of all violent crimes in Indian Country.
Expressing investigative matters in Navajo is a valuable asset in the bureau’s arsenal against violent crime. For a community that is traditionally isolated and reluctant to speak to outsiders, the measure opened doors that had been closed for decades.
According to the FBI’s Fisher, the campaign has since expanded to include audio clips in Navajo that are included with the posters.
This is a shrewd approach, since Navajo is primarily a spoken language less geared towards the written word.
“I also want to do video clips in Navajo about the cases featured on the posters,” says Fisher.
“The Navajo Nation regularly amplifies our posters on their social media channels.”
Of the 574 recognized tribes in the U.S., the Navajo Nation is the largest in terms of geographic size and population.
According to the 2010 U.S. census data more than 173,000 individuals live on the sprawling 27,000 square mile reservation with another 100,000 living in other areas, mostly centered around Albuquerque, N.M., Phoenix, and Flagstaff.
An estimated 170,000 individuals consider Navajo their primary language.
One of the major challenges of working with Navajo people is the enigmatic nature of the language and culture.
The language is so complex that a special unit of U.S. Marines called the “Navajo Code Talkers” served with distinction in the Pacific theater during World War 2, because the Japanese were unable to understand their language and the accompanying codes used in such iconic battles as Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.
The new Code Talkers
Malinda Nakai, an outreach specialist for the FBI Salt Lake City Field Office, and a registered member of the Navajo Nation, was the first person utilized to translate FBI bulletins into a Native American language to better connect with the indigenous population, and to fulfill the bureau’s initiative.
Nakai is one of only two staffers who have completed the nascent Navajo language translator program the Bureau requires.
Nakai and her colleagues are a new sort of Code Talker; this time, supporters point out, the enemy is not the Japanese but criminals who exploit the abject poverty and substance abuse pervasive on the reservation.
Murders, domestic violence, and the missing and murdered indigenous women are endemic examples of why it is necessary for the FBI to be able to reach as many witnesses and victims as possible.
Spreading the word of the program has had its obstacles. The launch of the posters came as the the COVID virus swept through Navajo tribal lands, effectively paralyzing tribal authorities for for months.
FBI communications chief Fisher says that now that the pandemic appears to be weakening, he intends to travel around the reservation to promote the program.
Nevertheless, the disconnect between federal and tribal law enforcement only fuels a perception of condescension towards indigenous authorities.
“Showing politeness to the Director of the Navajo Division of Public Safety and his Police and Investigation department heads would be satisfying,” Henderson says pointedly.
“Because the FBI requires the Navajo Police and the Department of Investigation to process like initiatives through several FBI departments and its headquarters for its approval, the FBI should follow its same procedure with Navajo.”
According to both Noon and Fisher, there is no data at the present to quantify success of the Navajo language program in case closures.
Noon emphasizes his department’s challenges go much deeper than a poster campaign citing manpower, communication, and technological deficiencies that have more of a direct impact on public safety on the reservation.
“We need to make an investment to address the root cause of the majority of bad behavior, which is alcohol and other substance abuse,” says Noon.
“We have suggested the creation of a sobering center campus in different regions of the Navajo Nation to provide services that could potentially help people become sober and learn a trade.”
Officials hope the initiative can impact the dismal arrest rates of certain crimes such as rape.
According to the Navajo Times, in 2016 there were 319 reported rapes with only 10 arrests. The previous year there were 294 reported rapes with 21 arrests.
This report was first published by The Crime Report.