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Bills on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People face uncertain future in the Montana Legislature

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Cheryl Horn remembers the last phone call well. It was New Year’s Day 2020, and Horn called her sister, Jackie Big Hair, that morning to wish her a happy holiday. But when Big Hair didn’t answer, Horn did what she always did and called “Sal.”

Selena Not Afraid, 16, picked up and told her aunt what she expected to hear — that Horn’s sister was home, probably still sleeping. In the background, Horn heard an unfamiliar voice, which troubled her. By the sound of it, her niece was away from the house.

“OK, well, Sal, whatever’s going on, it’s time to go home now,” Horn remembers telling her.

That was the last time Horn heard the sound of her niece’s voice, who she called the “glue” that held the family together after five years of pain and loss. Jackie Big Hair had lost three of her children in a span of five years to suicide, a hit-and-run and an officer-involved shooting in Billings.

Selena Not Afraid, Big Hair’s youngest child, disappeared after being left by a group of friends at a rest stop between Billings and Hardin in southeast Montana on New Year’s Day.

“I’ve had four phone calls from my sister, waking me up to tell me something horrible had happened,” Horn, who lives on the Fort Belknap Reservation on the Hi-Line, said in an interview, voice shaking. “Four times I packed up my life and went down there to help my sister.”

When Horn got to the Crow Reservation after getting that phone call last year, family and friends had already set up camp by the rest stop, where they stayed for 13 days and nights, searching alongside intermittent local and federal officers for Not Afraid.

Federal officers found Not Afraid’s body 20 days later, on Jan. 20, less than a mile from the rest stop where she was last seen. Her official cause of death is hypothermia, but Horn and her family say there are still many unanswered questions surrounding the case.

Selena Not Afraid’s story is a familiar one.

In Montana, where Native Americans make up 6.6% of the population, they comprise 26% of all missing person cases. Indigenous people in the state are four times more likely to go missing than whites, according to data from the 2019 U.S. Census.

That’s part of the reason why advocates were excited when the 66th Montana Legislature passed several landmark laws in 2019 to help address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis.

Now, nearly two years later, the Montana Legislature is poised to tackle the MMIP crisis once again, with several bills promising bolstered support for the grassroots organizers who started the movement in the first place. But with a large class of freshman lawmakers, a new face in the governor’s office and especially, a different budget situation, some of the bills’ supporters worry about keeping the legislative momentum going.

Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said ultimately, she hopes the Legislature will be more willing to allocate more funding for the MMIP cause.

Susan Webber (D)

Susan Webber (D)

“It’s life and death. The rest of this stuff is just money,” she said. “But this is literally life and death.”

A Breakthrough Session

In 2019, lawmakers from the American Indian Caucus in the Montana Legislature came prepared with a slate of bills to bring relief to the MMIP epidemic.

Senate Bill 312, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, created the Montana Missing Indigenous People Task Force, a program in the Montana Department of Justice, with the goal of opening communication between different jurisdictions handling MMIP cases, like state, county, tribal and federal officials.

Copy of xgr-011221-JasonSmall2.jpg

Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, holds up a packet of statistics on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People crisis for members of the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. Many of those who testified noted that Indigenous People in Montana disappear at a rate disproportionate to their population when compared to other racial groups.

The bill also created the “Looping in Native Communities” grant, which was awarded to Blackfeet Community College to create a cross-tribal database where citizens can go to anonymously report missing persons.

The Legislature also passed Hanna’s Act, named in honor of a Lame Deer woman who was murdered in 2013, which would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to assist in the investigation of missing persons cases in Montana.

The bill originated in the House and was carried by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, in the Senate, where it underwent major alterations and nearly died multiple times before ultimately passing into law near the end of the session.

Webber said she would have carried the bill, but asked Sands to do so for one big reason.

“If things are really important to us, we’ll ask a non-Indian legislator to carry it so that the other non-Indian legislators listen,” Webber said in an interview.

The Search for Permanence

This session, two separate bills in the House and Senate are looking to continue programs from the previous session. Senate Bill 4 would extend the MMIP Task Force for another two years, while House Bill 98 would extend the task force and the database grant program.

Both came from the same bill in 2019, but American Indian Caucus members broke them up to ensure at least one of them passes and keeps the task force alive. The concern?

“Nobody knew what the budget was going to look like and everybody was paranoid, so we opted to take a two-bill approach,” Small said in an interview.

Webber agreed with her Senate colleague—with Gov. Greg Gianforte desiring to cut the budget and reduce the size of the government, any bill with state spending attached is on thin ice, she said.

Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, is sponsoring House Bill 35 and House Bill 36, both of which are set to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee alongside her bill extending the task force and the grant program on Thursday, Jan. 21.

HB 35 would establish a missing persons review commission to work alongside the state task force, but with a focus on recruiting members from Montana’s tribes and other concerned citizens to educate the public on MMIP issues and advise policy at the state level.

Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D)

Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D)

HB 36 is a direct response to requests like Cheryl Horn’s for more on-the-ground support for searchers and families of missing Indigenous people. The bill would create a grant program to provide training to volunteer search groups with a focus on coordinating with law enforcement.

Stewart Peregoy is worried for the fate of the new bills in the fiscally conservative Legislature. Both have state funding attached, though the total is less than $150,000 over the next two years.

“It’s sad but it’s true—this is a piecemeal approach,” Stewart Peregoy said in an interview. “It’s frustrating, but we have to build something because it didn’t exist. We’re filling in a lack of infrastructure across the state for helping families try and find their loved ones who have gone missing.”

During the hearing on SB 4 in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, asked Small why the bill sought to extend the task force for another two years, rather than permanently.

Small said two-year renewal helped keep the issue in the public eye, but Webber offered a different answer.

“We’re Indians, you know. People have these real antiquated, silly stereotypes about Indians,” Webber said. “I think it was last session or before where I heard, ‘Why are we giving Indians money? They get truckloads from the government!’ It’s still there. The ingrained stereotypes, the racism about Indians.”

Webber’s greatest hope is for a permanent place in the budget for MMIP programs, but nothing of the sort exists in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget proposal, nor in the Legislature’s proposed budget, House Bill 2.

Stewart Peregoy said she thinks the MMIP Task Force will be extended, but wasn’t sure about the database grant program. According to a September, 2020 report from the task force to the State-Tribal Interim Committee, unless funding for the database is reauthorized, Blackfeet Community College will not be able to fully implement the system across all tribal reservations, nor create an app that would notify the public when a missing person report is filed.

Stewart Peregoy said she believes this year’s MMIP legislation has a 50-50 chance of becoming law.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Stewart Peregoy said. “The Governor is asking to reduce the government; we’re asking to expand it.”

Gianforte’s office did not respond to requests for comment on upcoming MMIP legislation.

A representative for the Montana House Republican caucus said HB 35 and HB 36 were too early in the process to provide specific comment, but that “the House Majority supports efforts to continue combatting the horrific prevalence of MMIP in the state.”

More Work to be Done

Like Cheryl Horn, Crow Tribe member and advocate Lauri Kindness is motivated by personal experience. Kindness’s sister, Brandi Alden, left behind five children when she was murdered in Oklahoma City in 2019.

Since then, Kindness has become an activist in the MMIP movement, getting to know other families who have suffered losses in and around her community of Lodge Grass.

Kindness testified during the hearing on SB 4 to extend the MMIP task force on Tuesday, Jan. 12. She told committee members she knows five people directly who have been murdered or are missing, with little to no support from law enforcement entities in solving the cases.

“It is a very painful tragedy to lose someone you love without any closure or resolution,” she said in her remote testimony.

At public meetings of the MMIP Task Force, Kindness told members she wanted additional training in search and rescue and first aid for volunteer searchers, many of whom are simply concerned members of the community.

HB 36 to establish a grant program for MMIP response team training sounds like a direct response to that plea, Kindness said.

“Apparently, people were in that same thought process, because someone went to the higher echelons to get this noticed,” Kindness said. “It took off from that point, and I’m very appreciative.”

The MMIP Task Force itself is under new leadership, with its former representative from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Ellie Bundy, taking over the role of presiding officer in December 2020.

In an interview, Bundy said she’s proud of the work the task force has accomplished in opening channels of communication between law enforcement at the tribal, county, state and federal levels, but if the task force is extended, there’s much more it could accomplish, like working to address high levels of under-18 Indigenous kids who run away.

“Ultimately, we just want this to not be a problem any more so there’s no need for a task force,” Bundy said.

Organizers like Kindness and Horn know that the need is still very real.

When the investigation into Selena Not Afraid’s disappearance was fraught with miscommunications and delays, half a year into the task force’s existence, Horn said she questioned whether anything had actually been accomplished in the fight to solve the MMIP crisis.

But with new bills in the pipeline to directly help families successfully recover missing loved ones, Horn said she’s still optimistic.

“I’m not scornful,” Horn said. “I’m excited for this task force to get to the next level. I know everything in the real world has steps.”

NOTE: This story has been altered from a previous version that listed the names of children involved in an MMIW case. The names have been removed for privacy at the request of the family.

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Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.

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