Frances Tsinajinnie was 35 when she walked out of her home in Klagetoh one snowy February day, the last day that her family saw her alive.
She had gone looking for her husband and their truck on foot. When he returned home without her or any idea of where she might be, they knew.
Officers found her days later in Gallup, N.M., more than 70 miles away from her small hometown in northeast Arizona. They found four sets of footprints surrounding her body.
Her youngest child, Debbie Nez-Manuel, was 3 years old when she died.
Nez-Manuel didn’t know the details of her mother’s death for nearly three decades. Her family considered it taboo to talk about.
Her aunt finally told her the story 15 years ago as she drove to a hospital in Flagstaff, pregnant with her second daughter. She just kept talking, and Nez-Manuel shook as she listened.
“She had been violated and killed,” she said. “I felt settled in my heart when I finally heard it.”
As a woman, Nez-Manuel was taught to let these things rest, she said. But she found a chance to heal in hearing and now sharing her mother’s story.
“This is me teaching other women that they can… showing my daughters that they can do it. No matter what obstacles are in their way, they can overcome it and do more to keep each other safe,” she said.
Frances is just one of countless indigenous women and girls who have been murdered without explanation.
Nez-Manuel, a member of the Navajo Nation, carried that message from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to the Capitol Thursday along with other women whose loved ones’ deaths went unnoticed for years.
They came to the state House of Representatives to watch the Legislature take its first step toward understanding the problem plaguing Arizona’s 22 native tribes.
Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, sponsored House Bill 2570 to establish the Study Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to find ways to reduce violence against indigenous women. If the bill passes and wins the governor’s signature, the committee will present its findings and recommendations by Nov. 1.
Jermaine said the bill is continuing the work of former Rep. Wenona Benally who asked her and Sen. Victoria Steel, D-Tucson, to take it on in her place. Benally of Window Rock chose not to seek re-election in 2018 after just one term, citing the significant commute, time commitment and low pay as some of the reasons that led to her decision.
Jermaine has so far successfully carried her legacy forward. The bill passed out of committee unopposed, and won initial approval from the full House in Committee of the Whole Thursday. It is scheduled for a final vote on the floor Monday.
“Every day that we delay, that we don’t have the data to start creating the solutions, more people go missing,” Jermaine said.
Steele sponsored identical legislation, Senate Bill 1253, but it never received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert.
“[Native women] go missing three times: in the media, in life and in the data. If we don’t have the data, we can’t fight this,” Steele said. “But it’s frustrating because while we’re doing a study committee… more women are going missing and more women are dying and more girls are disappearing.”
And if the state won’t step up to figure out why, Steele said that is just a continuation of the generational trauma they’ve experienced for centuries.
“[Having it in statute] means that the state is acknowledging the problem,” Jermaine said. “It means that they want to partner on a solution. It means that we matter.”
Nez-Manuel found strength in her mother’s memory. Despite jumping from one aunt’s home to another and then through a series of foster homes, she was named valedictorian when she graduated from high school and eventually went on to earn her master’s degree.
Now, she’s raising three daughters of her own – their middle names are Frances.
“It’s not just something I can forget. So many of the women in our community – they know, and they remind me constantly about my mom in the way they react to me,” she said. “She tried so hard. She worked so hard. The one thing I can do is dedicate all of this to my mom.”