BROWNING — At a tribunal here to record testimony from the families of Indigenous people who have gone missing or been murdered, organizer Belinda Bullshoe left a red skirt draped over a chair near the corner of the room.
The seat was left empty, Bullshoe said, to represent the stolen voices of missing and murdered Indigenous people, some of whose families gathered at the community college here Friday to share and record their stories.
"That skirt represents the MMIW," said Bullshoe, of Browning, using the acronym for missing and murdered Indigenous women. " … We hope that we can actually, by doing events like this, and the families coming forward, that we can actually be their voice and they're not going to be stolen anymore."
The stories recorded at the two-day tribunal will be compiled into a report examining the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, men and children. The inquest is organized by the Global Indigenous Council, which helped put on the event in coordination with the Blackfeet Nation and Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.
A representative for former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign also attended, and organizers hope she'll carry the frustrations families shared back to D.C.
It’s the first time an effort like this has been made in the U.S. Canada went through a similar process and a report generated from the inquiry this summer documented what its chief commissioner called “genocide.” Those who spoke Friday said the Blackfeet Nation does not acknowledge a strong division at the U.S. border and is strongly connected to sister tribes in Canada.
In Montana, 46 of the 162 missing people in the state, or 28%, are Native, though Indians make up a little less than 7% of the state’s residents, according to Misti LaPlant, the state Department of Justice’s missing persons coordinator.
Seemingly everyone who attended the tribunal had been touched by tragedy that would be easier to call unthinkable except it's something they contemplate every day. A thread through each of their stories, as common as the red skirts and shirts many wore, was anger at law enforcement for not listening to a family's pleas to search for missing loved ones.
“I believe the law enforcement ruined my sister’s case because they did not take it seriously,” said Kimberly Loring, the sister of Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, who went missing from Browning in June 2017.
“Ashely’s been missing 848 days,” Loring said. “It’s a long time. A very long time.”
Though she is frustrated law enforcement in Browning didn’t take her sister’s disappearance seriously two years ago, Loring is still searching for her and not giving up hope.
“... They didn’t take Ashley as important. They didn’t want to search for her,” Loring said. “My sister didn’t deserve this. She had plans and being a missing and murdered Indigenous women was not one of them. We were supposed to go exploring the world, but instead I’m exploring the woods for my sister. I feel guilty for being here now talking because I should be in those mountains searching.”
Chief Judy Wilson, with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Chief of the Neskonlith te Secwepemc Nation in Canada, participated in the inquiry process in that country. She said the Canadian inquest report included 231 recommendations, but no action has come out of it yet.
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“Just because we had a national inquiry, it didn’t stop anything,” Wilson said. Her younger sister was murdered 23 years ago, and her family was only now — because of pressure from the national inquiry — able to tell police how poorly they were treated through the process, Wilson said.
“There were a lot of gaps. They never take things seriously,” Wilson said of law enforcement.
Though most of the increased awareness has centered around missing and murdered Native women and girls, several who spoke Friday shared stories about Native men who had been murdered.
Rhonda Grant Connelly's nephew, Matthew Grant, was killed in Browning in 2016. His murder remains unsolved.
"They all matter. Men are no different. They also bleed, cry and face fear," Connelly said.
Malinda Harris Limberhand said she had to make appeals to social media to get the community looking for her daughter, Hanna Harris, when she went missing in Lame Deer in 2013 before being found murdered days later. Law enforcement told her, Limberhand said, they wouldn’t take a missing persons report for 48 hours.
“The chief of police told me, ‘Oh, she’s probably out partying and scared to come home,'” Limberhand said.
LaPlant, the missing persons specialist, said Friday the misconception that law enforcement has to wait 24 or 48 hours before taking a missing persons report is false, and a dangerous delay to starting a search for someone.
LaPlant’s position was created under Hanna’s Act, which passed the state Legislature earlier this year as part of a package of bills meant to start addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women. LaPlant has been on the job three weeks and said the percentage of Natives who make up missing persons cases in the state has fallen from 31% to 28% over that time.
“It seems minuscule when you look at the big picture, but that’s how many more people that were located safely and are off the list,” LaPlant said.
Blackfeet Nation Chairman Timothy Davis said he was pleased to see the state start to take some action, but has been frustrated with the slower pace of legislation at the federal level. A bill called Savanna's Act, to revamp the federal database on missing and murdered Native women, has stalled in Congress. Late last year, Loring testified about her sister in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“We’re moving forward in a good way, but it takes time,” Davis said. “I pray that nobody ever gets stolen again or murdered, but unfortunately as we move forward there are people that do violence, and we have to pray for that to end.”