The story of Gabby Petito’s disappearance grabbed attention, headlines and dominated social media for weeks.

Tragically, the 22-year-old appears to have been murdered, her body found Sunday in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. Police are searching for her boyfriend, who has disappeared, identified as a person of interest. The couple had left from Florida, taking a van to drive across the country, documenting their journey on Instagram. In August, Utah police stopped the couple in what appeared to be a domestic abuse situation but felt “insufficient evidence” existed to file criminal charges.

Her family reported her missing Sept. 11 after not being able to speak with her.



When Petito was reported missing, social media followers and cable TV viewers responded. Internet detectives worked to track the van — successfully — and helped investigators narrow the search for the missing woman. Now they are helping search for the missing boyfriend.

All of this combined to create the latest version of a condition well-known to aficionados of true crime tales — Missing White Woman Syndrome. It’s unfortunate, and not because Petito’s case doesn’t deserve attention. It’s that many others do, too.

Young, attractive white women are not the only people who go missing in the United States.

Pay heed to Molly Jong-Fast, writing at the Daily Beast: “Gabby Petito’s hashtag was searched 268 million times on TikTok.” Yet as she pointed out, in Wyoming, where Petito vanished, 710 Indigenous people — mostly girls — disappeared between 2011 and 2020. Still, she wrote, “their stories didn’t lead news cycles [and] internet sleuths didn’t clog Instagram and Twitter trying to solve the mystery of their disappearances.

“Personally, I find it more than a little infuriating that those 710 people didn’t get the same attention as this white, model-thin 22-year-old who’d been documenting her travels through Utah’s national parks in a white van with her boyfriend on Instagram.”

That’s sadly unsurprising. Little attention is paid when women of color vanish. One of the least-covered news stories in the United States has been the tale of missing or murdered Indigenous women. And it’s a big one. Some 5,700 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing as of 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center.

As advocate Lynnette Grey Bull told NPR in response to the Petito case: “It’s kind of heart-wrenching, when we look at a white woman who goes missing and is able to get so much immediate attention.”

Part of doing better is recognizing the issue, which it appears both federal and state officials are starting to do.

In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham established the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force Act through House Bill 278. The effort arose after a 2017 Urban Indian Health Institute Report showed New Mexico had the highest number of missing Indigenous women in the country — 78. The task force’s work focused on the years of 2014-19, finding a total of 954 unsolved missing persons cases over that period. Of them, 92 people — or 9.5 percent — were Native men and women. And that’s likely an undercount since in many cases the race of the missing person is listed as Hispanic or “other.”

By May of 2021, it was time for additional steps, which Lujan Grisham set forth in an executive order, calling for representatives from tribal nations, state government and community partners to look for ways to address the crisis.

One key issue throughout has been the lack of solid numbers for just who has gone missing. No single law enforcement agency maintains a database of the cases and jurisdiction problems across counties, state and tribal lines complicate investigations. So does a lack of resources; it’s hard to investigate when a county or tribe is short on police officers.

It’s essential to shine a light on these losses. The people gone missing and their families deserve no less.

(11) comments

Francisco Carbajal

Frankly, the MMIWR issue in New Mexico has been ignored for a long time but without any public safety, health and welfare concern prior to the Governor Lujan Grisham being elected into office and getting involved with the issue. Now, the Santa Fe New Mexican appears to give Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham kudos for a job well done by establishing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force Act through House Bill 278 in 2019. Seriously? What did Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham actually do for getting this sensitive legislation into the hopper during the 2019 State Legislature Session? How come she did not place this specific MMIWR Task Force idea into her "First Call of Action" (Governor's Agenda) while she was addressing the NM State Legislator's on the first day of the session in 2019? Where was she during the House and Senate Committee Hearings for House Bill 278 to support and personally testify for the bill in the first place? I am curious on who the "real contributor" or person who brought this sensitive matter to the attention of the NM State Legislature and to assist in resolving this horrific and tragic disappearance of Native Women, Children, and Men in NM. Why not give credit where it is due and cease on promoting Governor Lujan Grisham who claims to started a grassroot community movement to address the MMIWR issue for Indian Country that is false altogether. Now, she is walking around boasting and getting the credit for something she did not do in the first place. Just venting!

Emily Hartigan

You don't want her to get any credit. Got it.

I don't know enough, and apparently you don't, to know if somehow there's an unsung hero, but MLG surely didn't hurt the effort.

Emily Koyama

Is it a Governor's job "not to hurt the effort" or to help solve the problem?

I'll give you two guesses.

Francisco Carbajal

Emily Koyama, apparently your two questions don't fit the MMIWR subject matter at this time. The written Santa Fe New Mexican story about the NM MMIWR Task Force and a National News story about a missing "white" young woman became a "race card" story in the ending. Yet, the local newspaper chimed in by mentioning Governor MLG name as a small token of credit. This is not about the two questions that you want people to respond to "Is it a Governor's job "not to hurt the effort" or help solve the problem or "I'll give you two guesses?" Stop reading into the lines of a serious matter in NM!

Francisco Carbajal

Emily Hartigan, apparently you are responding to my post without any critical thinking attributes. Who are you anyways? Um? I haven't heard of your name mentioned within the MMIWR Task participation process? Like you stated in your blogging response, "I don't know enough and you are spot on! Definitely, your lack of knowledge in this sensitive subject matter and response has no merit at this time.

Emily Hartigan

It's the public.

Media want eyes.

Those with leisure to follow cute-blond stories (about those with middle-class entitlement not to be working at 22), click on those fetching blue eyes.

Indigenous women, women in "the world's oldest profession", poor women, women of color, are all of little or no interest to the public. We readers need to examine ourselves.

Khal Spencer

If it is blonde and fetching, it gets covered by the national media as a rock star gone MIA. If it is anyone else, it's snooze, not news. There is an obvious double standard but most media is about making money, not being fair.

Emily Koyama

True.

And since indigenous women, and ladies in the "oldest profession" go missing so frequently, perhaps the media is aware that readers/viewers may "tune out" after similar stories are repeated over and over.

Money and ratings drive everything...oh, and a good helping of political propaganda thrown in too....although it can be argued that that is about money too...

Mike Johnson

Interesting a news media source wants to pontificate here. The news media are the problem here, going on feeding frenzies when some attractive, young woman is involved. News media, heal thyself, and look in the mirror for the problem here.

Jennifer Johnson

Absolutely, and you are the very ones who can be shining the light consistently. Feature these missing indigenous women. Create a daily or weekly column that doesn’t let us forget. Others will follow.

Jim Klukkert

JJ: [thumbup][thumbup]

Welcome to the discussion.

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