The Scott Hart Building where the Department of Justice is located in Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).
The percentage of missing Native Americans in Montana continues to rise.
According to a new report from the Montana Department of Justice, American Indians in the state made up 30% of all missing persons in 2021 — compared to 25% between 2017 and 2019 — despite only accounting for 6.7% of the population.
In 2021, Montana law enforcement entered 2,114 missing person cases into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center; of those, 650 were Indigenous persons. And of the 650, 457 were unique entries, and 193 were reports of the same individual missing at least twice during 2021. More than 80% of the reports were youth under the age of 18, and when broken down by gender, 67% were women, and 33% were men.
The report also outlined law enforcement efforts in locating the missing people — 229 were found the same day they were reported missing, and 167 were located within one to two days. Only 32 were not found within 2021, according to the report. A DOJ report looking at missing indigenous people between 2017 and 2019 found that of the more than 5,500 missing persons, 2,061 were found the same day and 2,258 were found within a week.
Additionally, the missing Indigenous person clearance rate in 2021 was 95%, and by May 30 of this year, only eight, or 1%, of the 2021 cases were still open as missing, according to the report.
The report also showed higher rates of missing Indigenous persons in the summer months. There were a total of 247 missing Indigenous person reports filed between May, June, July and August, and February saw the lowest amount with 38. The Billings Police Department responded to 119 missing Indigenous persons reports — the most of any law enforcement agency in the state.
While in certain cases, increased reports can be a result of more awareness, Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said he was disappointed by the study’s outcomes. Morigeau is also a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation.
“This is what we are used to, and you kind of become numb to it in some ways, which is a very sad thing,” he said. “You advocate for these things and then people squeeze you on funding, and they make things really difficult in the legislative process … and then the next thing you know, the amount of MMIP rises.”
He continued, “When I see that statistic, it shows me that we don’t value Indian lives as much as everyone else.”
To address the issue, he said the state needs to double down on funding for not only MMIP work but also investments in Indian Country more broadly, like education and economic opportunities.
“We’re at the bottom of every social indicator, and as long as those stay stagnant, we are going to keep seeing a lot of the same problems,” he said.
The report was put together by the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, which was created through the passage of the 2019 Looping in Native Communities Act. The legislation required a representative from each of the state’s eight federally recognized tribes, a representative from the Attorney General’s Office, a representative from the Montana Department of Justice who has expertise in the subject of missing persons, and the Montana Highway Patrol to be on the task force.
The mission of the task force is to “significantly reduce the numbers of Montana’s missing Indigenous persons by identifying barriers, strategies, and root causes with the utilization of education, technology, and specific recommendations to the legislature, to help heal and connect families,” according to the report.
The report also identified recommendations to the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee to help combat the high rates of missing indigenous people in Montana.
First, it suggested the 2023 Legislature reauthorize both the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force and Looping in Native Communities funds for a minimum of two years.
Second, it said the task force’s authority should be broadened to allow formal recommendations to other state and federal agencies.
“The issue of missing Indigenous persons is complex and the stakeholders are numerous. It is clear from the data that additional state agencies need information and engagement. For example, the Montana Office of Public Instruction is an important resource for addressing missing youth as are the Montana Judicial Branch Youth Courts,” the report read.
Third, it proposed a legislative resolution to the federal government to ask that law enforcement on all reservations be funded. Fourth, it said a legislative study be conducted on the issue of Montana’s missing youth, emphasizing missing Indigenous youth.
And lastly, it suggested a Missing Persons Response Team training program be established to fund opportunities for training and equipping community-based Missing Persons Response Teams. A bill to do just that failed in the 2021 legislative session, but lawmakers on the state-tribal interim committee said they will propose a similar bill in the upcoming session.
“The MMIP Task Force learned from community meetings, public testimony, and contact with families of missing Indigenous persons that there is a significant gap in both training and equipment for search teams in tribal communities,” the report read.
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