Elayne Gregg stepped up to the microphone in front of the Tucson City Council while holding her sleeping baby daughter Siku strapped to her chest and softly recalled the rape and murder of her 7-year-old daughter Rhia Almeida in Ajo in 2009. And then she called for action and healing.

For years she couldn’t talk about it. She started telling her story in 2018. 

When she connected with Indivisible Tohono, a group trying to make a difference, “something hit me,” she told the Tucson City Council Tuesday. “I suddenly felt this urge and this calling to speak about my daughter and to speak about this grief that our families, our communities just sweep under the rug. It’s too painful and we don’t address these issues.”

“We need to start taking action,” Gregg said. “We’ve raised awareness for years now.”

On Tuesday the city council took action to form a joint task force with Pima County on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and People.

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Tucson has the fourth-highest incidence of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the nation, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said at the study session meeting on Tuesday. The uneven collection of data about these violent crimes is a part of the crisis and makes it hard for authorities to get a clear picture of the problem.

The new task force, including representatives from the city, county, nonprofits and tribal police agencies, will make recommendations about data collection, policy, training and services.

The effort was led by April Ignacio, co-founder of Indivisible Tohono, a civic engagement and advocacy organization. Action items could include making sure residents of Indigenous nations have access to 911, Amber Alert systems, well staffed police departments and more national media attention, Ignacio said in a documentary video shared at the meeting.

April Ignacio, co-founder of Indivisible Tohono, a civic engagement and advocacy organization, speaks to the Tucson City Council on Tuesday, May 9. Image via Tucson City Council video.

“While we’re advocating for 911 emergency lines on our nation, we’re watering ourselves down to explain why 911 isn’t available on most reservations throughout this country and the historical relationship the United States government has with the Indian tribes,” Ignacio told the council.

Council member Lane Santa Cruz said the city has a collective responsibility to address the colonial legacy of violence against women.

The local task force comes after the creation of state-level groups including the House Ad Hoc Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples and Governor Katie Hobbs’ Arizona Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Task Force, Santa Cruz said. “And now it’s our turn to take swift and urgent action.”

After the vote, Ignacio and Gregg cried and hugged supporters outside city hall. Their yearslong calls for action are beginning to be heard.

Indivisible Tohono leaders April Ignacio, left, and Elayne Gregg, right, holding her baby daughter Siku, cried and hugged supporters outside city hall on Tuesday. Credit: Becky Pallack

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.