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'Boots on the ground' funding proposed to fill gap in Montana missing person’s initial response

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Posted at 1:16 PM, Jan 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-10 17:10:19-05

HELENA — Legislation to boost local efforts to respond to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People’s Crisis passed unanimously and heads next to the House Floor.

HB 18 is sponsored by Browning democrat Tyson Running Wolf. He presented the bill in the Judiciary Committee last week.

“This bill is meant to address a significant gap in our communities’ public safety efforts, ensuring that communities can help respond to instances of missing persons. While this bill is not limited strictly to Indigenous people, we know that Indigenous people go missing at drastically higher rates than other Montanans, and access to adequate training programs on reservations is a limiting factor,” Running Wolf said in committee.

The bill would establish an account to collect and distribute grant money to train and support local missing persons response teams. If passed, the measure would allocate $61,000 from the Montana State Fund to the grant fund, administered by the Dept of Justice.

Rep. Running Wolf said public and private donors could contribute to the fund as well. He says this gives people who want to support MMIP work a means of getting the money to local groups.

He said the program would build on the already-successful efforts of MMIP advocacy groups.

The measures was requested by the State-Tribal Relations Committee. A similar bill failed in 2021. Rep. Running Wolf says this is due to a lack of understanding about what the measure would do on the local level.

A resolution to study high rates of missing youth, and repeat missing youth is also headed to the House floor.

In 2021, Indigenous youth made up about 80% of all Indigenous missing person cases, according to data released in July of 2022 by the Montana Department of Justice. The report also noted a high number of repeat missing youth.

Montana photographer Jen Buckley is Chippewa Cree. She’s behind an effort to keep the MMIW/P tragedy where no one will miss it.

Her photos of Native women with a red handprint across their mouth are on billboards across the state.

“This issue has been impacting our people since the beginning of time, just recently its been getting attention. The red hand print symbolizes the silence that our people have gone through losing their people and the solidarity of standing with them,” Buckley said.

Buckley says she knew she wanted to do more to address the crisis after seeing how search efforts for Jermain Charlo were organized. Charlo is a Native American woman who went missing near Missoula in 2018.

“When Jermain went missing, it was so disorganized. She’s still, they still have no idea where she is and its the same with all the cases that have come up involving Native American women or people. It’s just delayed, and just acknowledging that difference. We’re not shaming anyone, just acknowledge the difference and how do we move towards a solution,” she said.

She hopes efforts to fund training for local search and rescue groups passes at the Montana legislature.

“I would encourage anyone to go out on a search. It's one thing to talk about it, it’s one thing to get your boots on the ground and do something about it,” Buckley said.

Rep. Running Wolf said efforts to address the MMIP crisis are spurred on by growing awareness, access to social media, and internet connectivity.

“We have folks that are Native film producers. We have folks that have all the right sound equipment. We have folks that know how to use databases. We have folks that are on multimedia continuously, posting and putting it out there. So it's also a movement of technology and knowledge and not being afraid to speak up,” he said.

This as Native Caucus members work on other solutions to secure safety and improved well-being on Montana’s reservations and for Indigenous people statewide.

“A lot of tribes are doing a lot of great things with economic development. I think what you just mentioned, as far as getting broadband and those sorts of things, those are huge for communities, especially rural communities that tend to be low income. Getting connected will help assist with a lot of these issues as well. When we talk about education opportunities, opportunities to talk about the MMIP team, trying to get a rapid response for missing persons,” State Sen. Shane Morigeau SD - 48 said.

A measure to reauthorize the DOJ’s Montana Missing and Murdered Persons Task Force until 2025 is scheduled to be heard in the Judiciary committee on January 18. That bill would add another board member from the Office of Public Instruction.