DENVER — Each year dozens of people from Indigenous communities across the country and in Colorado go missing. Most recently in the state, 28-year-old Raeanna "Nikki" Burch-Woodhull's body was found on December 3, around a week after she was last seen.
This year, state legislators passed a law to create a new Office of the Liason of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. The goal of the new department will be to the Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities as well as with the state to coordinate resources to better solve these cases.
While that office starts to get off the ground, a Colorado nonprofit says it isn’t waiting for help.
Brandy Martinez is the founder of Look for Me. This year, the nonprofit has started acquiring drones and training volunteers to offer a pair of eyes in the sky on search and rescue efforts.
“We don't even have service in some of these areas. So, communication is poor. It just feels like there are so many things working against them finding their relatives, that we feel like we're just bringing [the drones] in and we have to just do it. Somebody has to be that first one to do it,” Martinez said.
Historically, Martinez says her experience is that these SARS efforts have been slow because of the red tape between tribal and state jurisdictions. She’s hoping this nonprofit’s efforts will help speed up the efforts for the sake of families.
“Search and rescue right away. It was one of the big things that we realized we needed help with. Most of the searches are led by families. They have no experience,” she said.
So far, the group has acquired four Hercules drones and has sent them out to the Four Corners, Oklahoma, California and South Dakota to begin training volunteers. The nonprofit is calling the program Turtle Island.
Before any of these drones can be used out in the field, though, the volunteers must undergo FAA training and get a drone operator’s license to be able to fly. The nonprofit is leaning on Indigenous members with prior military experience to help with the training and to come up with the protocols for how these aerial search and rescue volunteer efforts would work.
“We're bringing on team leads and drone commanders that have the experience and from there, they show our people how to do it,” said White Owl Thin Elk, a member of Look for Me.
He went missing several years ago for a period of time before Look For Me was able to track him down. After that, his sister Priscilla also went missing but was recently found.
“I know how it feels to be helpless and to not be it to not have anyone care. And just knowing that when I got out, everyone was looking for me, I can't just forget,” White Owl Thin Elk said.
Now, he is paying it forward and using his own skills to help build up the drone team. They hope to be able to use drones in areas that are difficult to reach by foot like mountainous or swampy places.
“You can't access it by foot, you can't access it by horse, you can't go into it with ATV. So that's what these drones are going to do, it's going to be able to give us that resource and they stay in their region, so it helps,” he said.
The group says it doesn’t intend to be large but it is looking for volunteers who are committed and willing to work long hours to bring the families answers. That effort goes beyond drones to include dogs, aquatic searches and more.
With any new endeavor, though, money is always a hurdle in getting off the ground. The nonprofit is now in the process of fundraising to try to buy more equipment and pay for the training and licensing of volunteers, hoping that one day soon there won’t be any more lost relatives.
In a statement, the Colorado Department of Public Safety said, “Our vision for this office is to facilitate faster and more thorough multi-agency responses to cases of missing Indigenous persons so that we can bring all of the resources available from law enforcement to assist when an Indigenous person goes missing. The CBI has access to drones as part of the investigative process as well. While this is the first we have heard of this particular effort, it could be extremely beneficial in the future."
For those wanting to help the Look For Me nonprofit in its efforts, the group is accepting donations at:
On Venmo: @lookforme