Seraphine Warren in Washington on Wednesday after walking nearly 2,400 miles from Sweetwater, Ariz., to call attention to the alarming numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially women, including her aunt. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

Seraphine Warren stepped foot in Washington on Sunday evening, with the eagle feathers on her prayer staff waving in the breeze, as she completed her nearly 2,400-mile prayer walk from Sweetwater, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation. She undertook the journey in honor of her aunt Ella Mae Begay, a Dineh (Navajo) elder who disappeared 16 months ago, and to raise awareness of the alarming numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially women.

The missing and murdered Indigenous women movement (#MMIW) has gained traction in recent years as Native American activists have criticized tribal and federal law enforcement officials for failing to aggressively investigate cases and the courts for failing to prosecute. Conflicts over jurisdiction, lack of data and systemic racism have been cited for creating what some have called an invisible epidemic. Various reports have shown that Indigenous women face a higher risk of violence in their lifetimes, from sexual assault to murder.

“It feels like us, as Natives, we’re not important,” Warren said in an interview last week, citing both the lack of support from law enforcement and of media attention when Indigenous people, who include Native Americans and Alaska Natives, go missing.

Warren, 41, live-streamed her arrival in the nation’s capital to some 21,000 followers on her Facebook page Trailing Ellamae. On Tuesday, she met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native woman to hold that position. “She generally listened,” Warren said, describing the session with Haaland. She’s hoping to meet with other officials over the next few days.

Warren embarked on her prayer walk at 2:30 a.m. on June 15, 2022 – a year to the date and time her aunt went missing. Her mother, fearful of the danger, begged her not to go.

Begay, who Warren calls “auntie,” has not been seen since she drove away in her truck from her home on the Navajo Nation. Her truck has not been found, and her cellphone now goes straight to voice mail.


Warren says Begay, who was 62 at the time she went missing, is “a very talented” master rug weaver. “She’s sweet, soft-spoken and reserved,” Warren says, and wouldn’t have let anyone into her house, especially at night. She kept a piece of plywood to barricade the door.

Life wasn’t easy for Begay on the 27,000-square-mile Dineh (Navajo) Nation. Her husband was murdered 21 years ago. She’d just gotten electricity a few months before she disappeared, after buying a solar panel with money raised by selling her rugs.

Haaland has said working on the issue of missing and murdered women would be one of her highest priorities as interior secretary. She’s formed a Missing & Murdered Unit in the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide additional resources and coordinate efforts among agencies. After the blizzard of publicity last year over the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old White woman whose body was found in Wyoming less than three weeks after she went missing, Haaland reminded the media and the public that hundreds of Native girls and women are also missing or murdered.

In a written statement she gave to Haaland, Warren calls this epidemic of violence faced by Indigenous people “hidden terrorism.”

Warren wants the secretary to investigate how the cases of missing and murdered persons are handled by tribal police, with attention paid to improving investigative methods, developing better communication with families and providing support, such as grief counseling and mental health help, to family members.

“We need search and rescue teams,” she says. “We need equipment like ATVs, drones, helicopters, sonar for water. We have families on foot searching. We need cadaver dogs. We need funding for billboards and rewards. We need our own medical examiners. Our tradition calls for burying our loved ones within four days and we can’t.”


The prayer staff of Seraphine Warren is adorned with a pin of her missing aunt, Ella Mae Begay, eagle feathers and ribbons representing missing or murdered Indigenous people. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

More than 84% of Indigenous women will experience violence in their lifetimes, according to a report from the National Institute of Justice, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says murder is the third leading cause of death for girls and young women. The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports that for women living on reservations the murder rate is 10 times higher than the national average.

That startling statistic was highlighted at the end of the premiere episode of “Alaska Daily,” a new ABC show featuring Hilary Swank as a New York reporter who moves to Anchorage where she investigates the murders of Indigenous women. Although it’s fictional, the show is inspired by the reporting done on sexual violence cases against Indigenous women by the Anchorage Daily News with ProPublica, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Warren grew up on the Navajo Nation and now lives in Salt Lake City, where she was an ironworker for eight years and is the mother of five and grandmother of one. She quit her job to spend time helping search for her aunt.

Warren has seen firsthand the effect violence has had on her family. “When we were searching for my aunt in the 108-degree heat, I could see the tiredness in their eyes,” she said.

“I felt like I was walking in circles for a whole month,” Warren said, describing her state of mind after her aunt disappeared. She became troubled by what she calls “weak efforts” by the Navajo police and later the FBI to locate her aunt, and the “frustrating” lack of communication with the family. The FBI got involved after labeling the case a homicide.

Former Navajo Nation police chief Phillip Francisco defended the actions of his department in an article published last year by the Navajo Times.


Warren met three times with Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, but was dissatisfied with the results. An elderly lady told her she would not be respected because she wore jeans – and gave her the first of three ribbon dresses, which Warren wore on her journey.

Ribbon skirts and dresses have become a unifying symbol for Indigenous women, representing strength, pride in their heritage and support for social issues, such as the MMIW movement. Secretary Haaland wore one at her swearing-in ceremony.

Warren also wears an arrowhead that she likens to a shield for its protective qualities, along with turquoise jewelry. The eagle feathers on her prayer staff are believed to keep her from harm. Large sunglasses shield her eyes from the sun. A bandanna keeps her hair back.

She brought corn pollen, which is sacred to the Navajo, and sprinkled it at the beginning and end of each day when she prayed, and at rivers when she asked permission from the water gods to cross safely.

The logistics of her cross-country trip boggle the mind, but Warren kept it simple. She’s raising money through social media and a gofundme for her expenses. A rented van, that also doubled as a place to sleep, was driven by family members and friends who volunteered to follow her across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and, finally, to Washington.

Because of the summer heat in the Southwest, she started walking at 4 in the morning. She could make 20 miles in ten hours, but the first few days she walked until 7 in the evening, even running at times, to cover 40 miles.


In Oklahoma, members of the Cherokee Nation provided more help than she’d received at home, she says, offering hotel stays and buying her shoes.

She persevered through rain and then colder weather, as seasons changed from summer to fall. She rolled her ankle at one point and was advised to stay off it. She didn’t. In Kentucky she had to go to the hospital for a dog bite. Her brother, a runner, “took care of my feet” until he had to return home. She went through 15 pairs of running shoes.

Along the way, people told her stories of their missing and murdered family members. One family has waited 35 years for answers. Not all were Indigenous; some were Hispanic, Black and even White.

Warren added their names and their families’ messages on ribbons to her prayer staff. As she walked, she prayed for them, along with her aunt.

The missing and murdered “don’t have a voice,” she says. “They give me the strength to keep going. They motivated me,” she says through tears. “Every day they motivated me.”

She posted information about them on social media, along with photos and videos of her journey. On the day she entered Washington, she carried a sign with a photo of Aaron J. Tsosie, who was murdered on April 26, 2017, provided by his mother.

She shared humorous moments as well. “If Tom Hanks had his volleyball ‘Wilson’ to keep him sane, I have my Prayer Staff to keep me sane,” Warren wrote on Facebook in early October. Many days she did a live feed to let people know about her progress.

Warren still hopes to find her aunt – alive. “I don’t want to find her remains,” she says. “I don’t want to find her in that way.

“I need my aunt back,” she says. “I want healing.”

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