Montana is home to eight distinct Tribal Nations comprised of 66,279 members spread over seven established reservations and covering over 8.1 million acres. Though they span nearly 12% of its acreage, Montana reservations are virtually invisible and the everyday lives of their tribes and members equally so. That very invisibility is at the core of one of the most troubling issues facing Native populations today: missing and murdered indigenous people, or MMIP.
In the second installment of I Am Interchange’s exploration of Native culture and concerns throughout Montana, founder Tate Chamberlin and a small crew took several days in early June 2019 to visit the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana. Home to the 17,321-member Blackfeet Nation – one of the largest tribes in the United States – the Browning-based reservation is also home to an alarming reputation for increasingly unmitigated lawlessness. As the locals’ adage advises: “If you want to get away with murder, go to Browning.” With the intention of shedding light on a growing MMIP problem, the Interchange team set out on an intensive exploration of the issue as seen through the eyes of Kimberly Loring Heavyrunner, Blackfeet Nation member and sister to Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, who disappeared in June of 2017.
After participating in and documenting an annual MMIP awareness rally on June 8th, Chamberlin sat down for an intensive interview with Kimberly to gather details surrounding Ashley’s story and to discuss the complex sovereignty and territorial designations that impede MMIP resolutions and leave families at the helm of the recovery efforts. The Interchange crew then set out to assist Kimberly and her family in a day-long search, one of countless such fruitless investigations Ashley’s family has led since she went missing two years ago and one that is proving interminable, in Heavyrunner’s case and the stories of so many like her.
But all hope is not lost. Though the price has been great, MMIP is finally gaining national media attention. And with that attention, comes pressure for change. Recent legislative action seeks to alleviate MMIP and the bureaucratic and jurisdictional loopholes that have allowed for it. Passed in April 2019, Hanna’s Act creates a new Department of Justice position tasked with tracking missing persons cases in the state and assisting families and law enforcement agencies with finding those people. House Bill 20 defines investigative and reporting procedures for children believed to be missing as a result of custodial dispute. House Bill 54 requires the acceptance of missing person reports at all law enforcement authorities and delineates a timeline for their addition to a national database. The recently enacted Looping in Native Communities Act (LINC) allocates $25,000 in grants to a tribal college (as yet to be determined) to create a missing Native Americans database. It also created a Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force within the state Department of Justice to oversee the new program as well as identify and strategize ways to overcome jurisdictional reporting and investigative barriers. Finally, Savanna’s Act, which was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in June, directs the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing and murdered indigenous persons.
It is the goal of those championing this legislation, committed individuals throughout law enforcement and civilian communities, that these steps – however small and overdue – begin to challenge the overwhelming numbers, create solutions where there was chaos, and bring closure to the growing number of families directly impacted by MMIP throughout the country. So that those who are lost might be found.
This project was produced by Susan Carstensen, Kirsten & Pat Kainz, The Yellowstone Theological Institute, Ben Johnson, Roy Chapman, Joe Fedora, and Tate Chamberlin.