A new, statewide office is seeking justice for Indigenous victims of violence in Colorado.
In November, Arron Julian became the director of Colorado’s Office of Liaison for Missing or Murdered Indigenous Relatives. Indigenous communities face disproportionate levels of violence nationwide, but case investigations often involve cross-jurisdictional challenges and become a source of frustration for victims’ families.
Julian is tasked with helping to improve the state’s response to these cases. Barely 100 days into the role, Julian is focused on setting his top priorities: building relationships and launching key programs.
“We’re way ahead in the short time we’ve been in operation, and we’re moving as fast as we can forward to bring awareness and training across the board,” he said.
The office, one of the first of its kind in the country, was established via a 2022 state law. It was created to be an enhanced tool in the state’s efforts to improve the response to missing persons investigations and homicide cases involving Indigenous victims.
Julian, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe in New Mexico, has 36 years of experience in law enforcement. He has worked for multiple tribes, serving as a chief of police, a tribal leader and a sexual assault response team coordinator. He also oversaw a security force of about 6,000 employees from five different countries while working as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Department of State.
Julian is already confident this new office and role can make a difference.
“I don’t want to be too presumptuous, but I know we’re leading the way and making this an awesome program,” he said.
Nationwide, Indigenous communities face a higher risk of violence than other populations.
It’s difficult to define the scope of this violence – data collection has long been slow and spotty – but some patterns are clear. For women living on reservations, the murder rate is 10 times higher than the national average. More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native adults have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. Notably, most of this violence is perpetrated by non-Native individuals, according to federal data.
Native communities have known about these trends, at least anecdotally, for years, said Raven Payment, a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Task Force of Colorado, a grassroots advocacy group.
“I like to point out that a lot of cases of violence are not reported,” said Payment, a descendant of the Kanien’kehá ka and Ojibwe nations. “I’ve never met one Native woman who hasn’t experienced violence in her lifetime.”
When cases are reported, investigations face their own challenges. Uncertainty over whether a case is under tribal, local, state or federal jurisdiction can slow the initial response. Indigenous communities might mistrust law enforcement or choose to report to grassroots organizations instead of law enforcement, Julian said.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe knows these challenges well. The 600,000-acre reservation spans parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and depends on the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for tribal law enforcement. Investigations face staffing, funding and interagency communication issues, said Manuel Heart, the tribe’s chairman.
The local BIA unit has seven or eight officers who work 12-hour shifts, and it can take them an hour and a half for BIA to respond to some areas of the reservation. Other law enforcement agencies aren’t familiar with the rural reservation, and the lack of communication between agencies and communities can leave families feeling like they’re in limbo, Heart said.
“We have had a few (missing and murdered Indigenous relatives cases), and it’s been frustrating that we can’t get the law enforcement or other partners to really help out,” Heart said.
When investigations are complete, they are not always prosecuted. At the federal level, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute 32% of Indian Country cases in 2019. From 2016 to 2018, the office declined between 34% and 39% of cases. The most common reason was insufficient evidence, according to a 2019 report by the Department of Justice.
This system has left Indigenous communities with a sense of injustice and a cycle of trauma, Payment said. As a task force member, she had just spent four days helping family members search for Wanbli Oyate Vigil Black Elk, a Lakota man who went missing in Denver and was found dead in early January. His death was under investigation but did not appear to be suspicious in nature, Denver Police said.
As she watched his family experience a tragedy, Payment’s family watched her cope with what she witnessed – each of them trying to support the other.
“There is this ripple effect of trauma and grief and human pain,” she said. “It just affects everyone around you.”
The 2022 legislation that created the new state office aims to address these issues – and Julian’s job is to support state agencies as they take steps to fulfill their mandated obligations.
The law comes with a long to-do list, including better data collection, and new annual reports covering the scope and handling of cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people. State agencies will spend more time on cold cases and correct records that misidentify the race of Indigenous victims.
A mandated alert for missing Indigenous people, which launched Dec. 30, aims to help law enforcement agencies sort out jurisdictional questions and respond more quickly to new cases. The office of liaison was established to resolve interagency communication issues and improve relationships with communities.
On Nov. 27, Julian’s seventh day on the job, Raeanna “Nikki” Burch-Woodhull was reported missing to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Southwest Colorado near Durango.
Burch-Woodhull, who was in the second trimester of pregnancy, was later found dead. She had two children and grew up on the Southern Ute Reservation, according to news reports. A man from Ignacio was arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder a week later.
Julian, who was meeting with tribal officials on the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Reservation at the time, worked with community members in his role as liaison during the initial investigation. Within his first 40 days, the office helped with seven other missing persons or homicide cases, Julian said.
“It’s very urgent to me,” Julian said. “It’s the passion of my life and my career to be helping victims of these types of crimes. I’ve worked in different tribes, and we’ve done many things to … bring some kind of conclusion for the family.”
Payment, who helped with the passage of the bill in 2022, said building relationships and educating communities are key to the office while it’s in its infancy.
She worried that the pushback against the bill during the legislative process will continue and undermine the office from within. Initially, Gov. Jared Polis and his administration did not support including the office of liaison in the bill.
“My hope is that, as the years progress, law enforcement has a better tool kit to respond more sensitively,” she said. “And then similarly, we’re going to start finding answers for these families, for the people who have been brutally murdered.”
As tribal chairman, Heart supports the office of liaison and said Julian will need time to develop both his new role and the office itself. But already, he has concerns about staffing and funding.
“It’s a valuable department, but it’s got to be funded every year,” Heart said. “Funding’s going to be a challenge.”
The Colorado Department of Public Safety, which houses the office, has $619,889 in funding for missing and murdered Indigenous relatives-related activities during the 2022-23 fiscal year. Of that, $228,433 goes to the office.
Julian, who has been the office’s sole employee, will have one employee working for him this year. The other 2.5 employee positions mandated by the legislation will assist the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Without enough staff and funding, the office will languish, Heart said. But in the future, its success could lead to new possibilities, particularly because of its data collection. More data will help measure the effectiveness of the state’s response, inform the development of the office, and bring resolution to families, he said.
“We have to work together in a better way for the future of our children and the children that are not yet, and all of our relatives that are here and the ones we’ve lost,” Heart said.
Thinking years ahead, Julian hopes to eventually provide more resources to help families see resolution and connect with advocates. He plans to have more support within the office and to do violence prevention and awareness campaigns across the state. And he wants the community at large to understand the office and its work.
“I can’t do it by myself,” said Julian. “I need everybody’s help.”
Freelance reporter Shannon Mullane wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and also funds a reporting position at The Colorado Sun. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on Feb. 17, 2023, and can be read in Spanish at collective.coloradotrust.org/es.