The Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force met for the first time in Helena on Tuesday as it looks at jurisdictional challenges and awards grants aimed at addressing the issue of missing and murdered Native women and men.
Senate Bill 312, called the Looping in Native Communities Act, or LINC, created the task force and $25,000 in grants to be awarded to a tribal college to create a database of missing Native Americans. Along with the grant program, the task force’s duties include identifying and strategizing ways to break down barriers between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement and agencies in reporting and investigating the cases.
Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, carried SB 312 and said he hopes the task force will “open up the floodgates” for people to start talking to each other.
“It’s neat that you have an entire room full of movers and shakers and I’m feeling pretty confident that if anyone is going to get this system to work they’re in this room right now,” he said.
Attorney General Tim Fox appointed the task force last week with members of Montana’s seven reservations, the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, Deputy Attorney General Melissa Schlichtning, Sgt. Derek Werner from the Montana Highway Patrol and Jennifer Vets, manager of Montana’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse.
“My team and I have a passion to try to do everything possible to find missing persons,” Vets said. “We don’t care about their age, where they went missing from, what the circumstances were; our objective is to find that person and make sure they’re OK.”
Fox told the crowd he believed their work was a way to honor those grieving and struggling with a missing or murdered relative or friend.
“We know that this issue of missing persons in general and missing and murdered indigenous people is a problem that has risen to a crescendo where people are finally paying attention,” Fox said. “We have an opportunity, as the saying sometimes goes, ‘to strike while metal is hot’ because people are paying attention and there are many, many activists out there that have raised the dialogue.”
Many tribal members of the task force introduced themselves by sharing personal experiences of missing or murdered loved ones.
Blackfeet Councilman Mark Pollock told of a gathering for Ashley Heavyrunner Lorring, who went missing from the reservation in 2017, and the impact it had on him personally.
“It just makes you want to do even more, and that’s why I’m here, because I want to put a stop to it,” he said.
Hollie Mackey, associate professor of women's and gender studies at the University of Oklahoma and a Northern Cheyenne member, is facilitating the task force. She encouraged members to think deeply about what they know, what they have heard, and what they feel and to tackle misconceptions. While human trafficking does play a role in some disappearances and murders, human trafficking is different than people going missing.