The president of a Montana tribal community told Montana legislators Thursday it was critical they pass laws to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women.
"It is time to act on this crisis. This isn't a reservation problem and this isn't a Native American problem. This is a Montana problem and we must come together and unite as Montanans to address this problem and implement a solution," Andrew Werk Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Tribal Communities, told the state House.
Werk is leader of the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) tribes. He told lawmakers that the record number of Natives among them was something to celebrate, and that Native women in particular are pushing forward to find ways to protect American Indian women.
"I am humbled to look out and see Native women here today," Werk said. "We must continue to work with them to address the challenges that exist."
Data on missing Native women are unreliable, according to a report produced by legislative 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.
A package of bills that came out of the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee, along with support from the Department of Justice, is meant to improve gaps in state law. The bills are aimed at making sure missing women are looked for earlier, dedicating resources to investigating missing women and children and attempting to ease jurisdictional issues. One of those bills, which would require law enforcement to take missing person reports in a timely fashion, passed a key vote in the House after Werk's speech on a 100-0 vote.
Werk also told legislators that Medicaid expansion in Montana, known as the Montana Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) Act, has been vital to American Indians on and off reservations.
"Because of the enormous benefit to American Indians and to Montana, I urge Montana legislators to continue to support Medicaid expansion so that low-income Montanans and also American Indians can continue to access health care that is critical to Montanans' health, wellness and sense of well-being," Werk said, saying more than 15,000 tribal members have gained access to health care since the passage of the act.
"Not only does the HELP Act have the potential to assist in closing the staggering American Indian health disparity, it brings much needed dollars into Indian Health Services, tribal and urban health facilities," Werk said. In Montana, Natives live about 20 years less than non-Natives.
Werk also said lawmakers need to pass several bills related to lowering the youth suicide rate, including a bill that would have students go through suicide and depression screenings in schools.
Tribes should also be allowed to manage bison on their lands for cultural, economic, agricultural and other reasons, Werk said. The transfer of bison from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation has been stalled over brucellosis testing.
"I think that tribes throughout the state on their own lands, on their own reservations, have proven that they can manage their own buffalo," Werk said. "What I see is the buffalo going through the same thing that my ancestors did when they were placed on reservations. That's what I see happening. It's unacceptable."
Werk also encouraged collaboration and partnership between all levels of government, including tribal nations.
"Native American tribal governments, citizens of Montana, state and local government and the state Legislature all share an important responsibility to care for one another and look after our great state of Montana," Werk said.
Members of Montana's congressional delegation previously addressed the House.