When state Sen. Susan Webber was younger, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, a well-known woman from her tight-knit neighborhood on the Blackfeet Reservation disappeared.
“I remember that really distinctly because everybody knew her. We had a poor community, but if you were hungry you’d just walk down to her house and she always had a pot of beans or a pot of soup or something, and she’d say sit down and eat. One day she just disappeared,” Webber said.
The woman’s family searched for years and, about three decades later, they found her body in a shack on a remote part of the reservation, Webber said.
“It brought closure. Over 30 years that woman was missing. This issue of missing women has been going on a long time.”
The problem is not new in Montana, but through four pieces of legislation proposed for the upcoming 2019 state Legislature, Webber thinks maybe it’ll finally start getting the attention it deserves.
“It’s going to put some light on something'' that people know is happening in the state, said Webber, a Democrat from Browning who represents a five-county area in northern Montana. “In Indian Country, it hasn’t been quite a secret, but it seems like it’s been a secret to everybody else outside the reservation. This legislation is finally going to crack that door open just a little bit to (address) something that’s been happening for a long time, generations.”
The interim State-Tribal Relations Committee, an eight-member panel of lawmakers from Indian Country and adjacent communities that met between the 2017 and 2019 session, did not have a formal assignment to study missing people, violence against Indian women and human trafficking.
But Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, chair of the committee, said at the group's final meeting in September that the interrelated issues became a focus after 20 months of input.
Data on missing Native women is unreliable, according to a report produced by the committee's staff. There are 60 documented cases in Montana between 1979 and 2018, according to a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge who is studying the topic and collecting data.
The study found more than half the documented cases happened in the last five years, which may reflect increased use of social media to share information about missing people.
“We had a number of families, tribal officials (and) different community people come forward and they voiced their frustration with the system. And I myself, in being a Crow Tribe member, have been involved personally in trying to come up with some solutions for the issue at hand,” Stewart Peregoy said. “ … If we really come down to it, a Native woman is not safe in Montana or this region.”
Of the legislation the committee will bring into the session starting in January, several bills will address missing people. They are crafted from recommendations by the state Department of Justice.
The first would establish Hanna’s Act, which authorizes the state Department of Justice to assist with all missing persons investigations. It also creates and funds a new position at the department, a missing persons specialist.
The legislation is named for Hanna Harris, a woman from Lame Deer who was missing for several days before she was found murdered near the rodeo grounds on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
A second bill would revise laws related to missing persons reports and require law enforcement to accept reports without delay.
The third is a study resolution to examine the cycle of runaway youths. In 2017, 68 children were reported missing three or more times; 28 percent of those reported missing multiple times were Native.
The last two bills also deal specifically with children: one would require a missing person report if, during a custodial interference case, a child’s location is unknown. The final bill would create an opt-in repository for school photos that would be shared with law enforcement if a child goes missing.
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William LeCompte, acting special agent in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' District V, said at the committee's September meeting he thought the legislation will help with the issues his agency and others face in investigating missing persons cases.
LeCompte told the committee the biggest barrier in investigating missing persons cases is delayed reports.
“Every missing person case I’ve been involved in personally, there has always been a delay in the report,” LeCompte said.
At the federal level, a bill called Savanna's Act would revamp the way the U.S. Department of Justice compiles a database on missing and murdered Native women to help make sure all law enforcement agencies have necessary information. It passed the Senate earlier this month.
Webber said it’s taken so long to bring attention to the problem of missing and murdered Native women because of inaccurate stereotypes that degrade how people view Native women.
“It stems back from early history when Indian women were no better than dogs,” said Webber, who teaches Indian women's studies at Blackfeet Community College.
“We all have those stereotypes of Indian women: they’re not more than animals, than beasts of burden, or the harlot. There’s also the noble woman who’s like Pocahontas, who saves the white man, which is like a fairy tale.
"Because of that stereotype, nobody takes us seriously,'' Webber said. "They don't talk about the Indian woman warrior.''
Webber likened the bills proposed for the 2019 session to a law that passed out of the 2015 session aimed at curbing human trafficking in Montana. That law, also brought at the recommendation of Attorney General Tim Fox, revamped the handling and definitions of human trafficking in Montana and spurred public awareness campaigns across the state.
“That campaign was initially startling but the starkness and reality of it really hit home,” Webber said. “If we do that here and put a face to these missing women and these missing Indian people, we get a better understanding of what’s really going on here,'' which will help.
Montana’s human trafficking efforts have been recognized nationally. Earlier this month, Shared Hope International gave Montana an A for its efforts to prevent child sex trafficking. The state is one of two that raised its grade four levels, from an F, since 2011. Much of that comes from the 2015 legislation that greatly increased awareness of the issue and created a victim-centered approach.
Fox said for too long human trafficking was talked about in terms of pimps, prostitutes and johns and all three parties were engaged in criminal activity. In reality, he said, sex trafficking has one victim and two criminals, the perpetrator engaged in trafficking a person and the person seeking out those services.
“We have come to an understanding as a society that the individuals who have been swept up into this, we know that they are the victims,” Fox said. “I think one of the best things we’ve seen is we really raised the dialogue in the last four to five years and that really got jump-started with (legislation from 2015) to restructure our human trafficking laws and change the way we look at human trafficking."
Fox, like Webber, said he believes the legislation proposed for this session to address missing and murdered Native women can also start breaking down stereotypes that inhibit progress.
“This has been a big issue nationally, and we think Montana should take the lead in addressing that,” Fox said.
For Webber, there's no time to waste.
“I have two granddaughters and I watch them like a hawk,” Webber said. “It could be them, two young Indian women. An Indian woman has to fear. Watch your daughters, watch your children and watch out for other children.”