Montana lawmakers discuss proposals to further address missing Indigenous people

Montana lawmakers discuss proposals to further address missing Indigenous people

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A year after lawmakers passed legislation intended to combat the crisis of missing Native Americans in Montana, legislators are discussing several more potential legislative proposals ahead of the 2021 session.

The State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee on Friday discussed four drafted bills during a virtual committee meeting, many based on recommendations made by the Department of Justice, which oversees the Missing Persons Indigenous Task Force.

Several bills were passed in the 2019 legislature to address the issue of missing Indigenous people, including hiring a missing persons specialist and forming a task force, which was created by Senate Bill 312, the Looping in Native Communities Act, or LINC. The bill also provided $25,000 in grants to be awarded to a tribal college to create a database of missing Native Americans.

In Montana, Native Americans make up more than 25% of missing persons cases, despite making up only 6.7% of the population. The number of missing Indigenous people is likely higher, as they go unreported or are misreported as a different race. Native Americans are also nearly four times more likely to be victims of homicide than the state's general population.

Of the drafted proposals discussed Friday, two seek to extend the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force another two years. The task force is currently set to expire in July 2021.

A third proposed bill discussed by the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee would open up grant money funding to train community-based missing person’s response teams or search groups.

“Communities want their own response teams,” said Tina Chamberlain, the Looping in Native Communities Act coordinator. “It wouldn’t just be about responding (to a missing person’s report) but about learning to collaborate and communicate.”

Many reservation communities have vocalized the need for response teams and training during community meetings held by the task force, Chamberlain said.

Tribal and rural communities in Montana need to develop specific protocols and responses tailored to each community, she said.

Many local search teams already exist, like the Northern Cheyenne Search and Rescue team, but local groups may lack adequate training or equipment.

The Gazette has covered several cases in which family and community members have decried the apparent slow-moving searches and investigations into missing Indigenous people.

Training sessions would likely be held in Great Falls and Billings, and trainees would be reimbursed for gas mileage and other training related costs.

Another drafted bill proposes starting a missing person’s review commission in addition to the task force. The commission would be confidential and include representatives from the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs, deputy attorney general Melissa Schlichting said.

The commission would be confidential, unlike the public task force, allowing members to discuss on-going investigations and missing person’s cases, Schlichting said.

“We can talk about existing cases and do a deeper dive to identify meaningful policy changes,” she said.

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