Gabby Petito’s Case Got Attention. Many Indigenous and Black Cases Do Not.

In Wyoming, where police say they found Petito's remains, 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011-2020.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
September 21, 2021, 6:24pm
A makeshift memorial dedicated to missing woman Gabby Petito is located near the North Port City Hall on September 20, 2021 in North Port, Florida.
A makeshift memorial dedicated to missing woman Gabby Petito is located near the North Port City Hall on September 20, 2021 in North Port, Florida. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

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When Nicole Wagon saw the media furor over the disappearance of YouTuber Gabby Petito, she couldn’t help but think to herself: “Where in the hell is our FBI? Where's the FBI that’s supposed to be helping and assisting all of us on the reservation.” 

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Wagon, 51, is northern Arapaho and lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Her oldest daughter, Jocelyn Watt, was murdered at home in January 2019, and her second-oldest daughter, Jade, went missing in January 2020. Jade’s body was later found on the reservation. Jocelyn’s killer, however, remains at large and Jade’s death is still under investigation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Wagon told VICE News, though the FBI said she died of hypothermia and acute methamphetamine intoxication. Wagon said trying to get information on their cases has been “like pulling teeth,” and getting national media attention has been equally challenging.

It’s a stark contrast to Petito’s case, which has very much played out in the public eye with a heavy, coordinated response from law enforcement. The 22-year-old Long Island resident set out for a road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie in July, with the two of them documenting their journey on Instagram and YouTube as they went along. Petito’s parents reported her missing on Sept. 11, a little over a week after Laundrie returned to his Florida home without her. 

Remains believed to be Petito’s were found in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park on Sept. 19; an autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday. Meanwhile, Laundrie has been missing for over a week and a number of local police forces in Florida as well as the FBI are searching for him. 

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Since Petito’s family went public with her disappearance, the case has been subject to intense, around-the-clock international news coverage. While her story is undeniably tragic, the public scrutiny has prompted some to note that missing Black and Indigenous people often don’t receive the same response from journalists or law enforcement. It’s not that there shouldn’t be concern and outrage surrounding Petito’s disappearance, but despite the fact that 40 percent of Americans reported missing are people of color, this national outcry is rarely replicated for anyone other than a white person. 

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Nicole Wagon's daughters Jocelyn Watt (left/center) and Jade Wagon (right) have both died.

“For me, it's like knocking on closed doors. Who's going to help me here?” said Wagon. “Because I bet you a dime a dozen if we got more news coverage, the cases would be solved for my daughters, Jocelyn and Jade. I strongly feel that.” 

In Wyoming, where Petito’s remains were found, a University of Wyoming report released earlier this year found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing between 2011 and 2020. The report also found that the media was less likely to cover Indigenous missing persons cases than cases involving white people, and that the coverage tended to portray missing Indigenous people in a more negative light or use violent language and victim blaming when describing what happened. 

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Cara Chambers, the chair of Wyoming’s missing and murdered Indigenous persons task force, said she couldn’t recall a time when a missing Indigenous person received the same kind of attention as Petito’s case. 

She also told VICE News there are jurisdictional issues and a lack of coordination among law enforcement when it comes to tackling Indigenous missing person cases. In terms of media coverage, Chambers said, “when we had white victims, we had definite positive character framing. You would have a story that would describe this person, name the person, describe him as a loving family member, brother, sister, mother, daughter, what have you.” 

This rings true for other communities of color as well: According to the Black and Missing Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about Black Americans who go missing, Black families with missing children report having their cases misclassified by police as runaways or as being tied to crime and addiction. 

A number of viral tweets and Instagram posts have noted the seemingly outsized response to Petito’s case as opposed to the dearth of coverage given to missing Black and Indigenous people. On Sunday, responding to days of network news coverage about Petito, education lawyer Johnathan S. Perkins tweeted, “Name one Black woman who went missing and garnered national media attention. I’ll wait.” 

“When a white woman goes missing, there will always be a number of reasons that folks will be able to come up with why we should care, why the national media should care. In this instance—she had a ton of followers on Instagram... or she was ‘pretty,’” Perkins told VICE News. “The white blondeness is the standard of beauty in this country.” 

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Though there have been cases of missing white women that didn’t take place during the age of social media, like Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, the intensity of coverage, Perkins said, has remained the same.

“It's their whiteness that is newsworthy,” he added. 

The discrepancy in how news organizations treat non-white versus white victims can result in a “chilling effect,” Chambers said, where Indigenous people are less likely to come to the press with their stories. 

“I think Gabby's family was open to seeking the assistance and went out and leveraged whatever resources they had to get attention to help find their daughter,” Chambers added. “And that's an amazing, wonderful thing. I worry that some of our Indigenous families don't feel similarly privileged or able to do that.”

Natalie Wilson, a co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, said media attention can be crucial in enlisting communities to help find people and applying pressure to law enforcement. 

“Oftentimes when our children are missing, they're classified as a runaway. So they don't receive the Amber Alert or any type of media coverage at all,” she said. 

For example, she noted, the families of victims of serial killer Anthony Sowell, known as the Cleveland Strangler, were dismissed because the victims struggled with drug addiction. 

“We want people to know that these are missing mothers, fathers, they’re children, they’re grandparents, they’re neighbors,” said Wilson. “They’re very vital to our communities, and there's a sense of urgency in finding them.” 

Wagon said she’ll keep searching for answers about her daughters—as well as advocating for other missing and murdered Indigenous people. She doesn’t believe Jade’s death was accidental.

“Maybe I make it look easy, but it's not. But I believe in fighting for justice for my kids,” she said. “If this happened to me, my kids would've never given up on me. So there's no way I have to give up on my kids.” 

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.