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Montana tribes work toward better response plans for missing indigenous persons

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Montana’s missing and murdered indigenous persons is an issue that’s been under reported for years.

Federal and state governments are trying to help fill gaps on responding to the crisis in tribal communities. Tribes are forming tailored response plans but some are having a harder time than others getting it done.

As of Sept. 28, 206 people are missing in Montana, 59 of them indigenous. A population who makes up 7% of the state’s total, accounts for more than a quarter of its reported missing people.

“People need to report immediately when somebody goes missing,” Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force Presiding Officer Ellie Bundy said. “We hear too often that people who wait a day or two and we lose valuable time when that happens. And there’s several reasons that happens. Sometimes families are afraid to reach out to law enforcement for many different reasons, but we really just need people to report immediately.”

Bundy is the Secretary for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council.

CSKT was the first tribal nation in the country to create a tribal community response plan. It’s tailored to the tribe’s specific needs and is a blue print for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The goal is to streamline response both on and off tribal lands.

It outlines protocol from a response to missing person with the tribe’s law enforcement, victim services, media and public communications and community outreach. It considers a tribe’s unique culture and resources to do so. But many Montana tribes are struggling to form this kind of response plan.

“It’s a little bit different for us here at the Flathead Reservation as oppose to what I’m seeing at the state level,” Bundy said. “We are incredibly fortunate to have the law enforcement team that we do. They’ve been really a critical piece the entire time, and not all the reservations in Montana have experienced the same thing. For all of those other tribes, this is something that is still really lacking, that is the communication with law enforcement and that’s been evident with a few of the tribes who are trying to work on their own tribal community response plans. They’re struggling with getting their law enforcement to even come to the meetings.”

Bundy says part of the reason is a lack of resources. Often, a small number of tribal officers are responsible for covering a large area.

Part of a tribal community response plan is communication with families of missing people bundy says she sees a major gap at the federal level with the FBI’s communication with the community.

“The families of those cases, that they’re working on, are feeling like they aren’t being communicated with at all,” Bundy said. “They don’t know what the agency is doing, if they are doing anything, and their just told that due to the investigation they can’t tell them anything. And that’s understandable, we know that can’t be shared but it’s another gab at that level that we need to identify. Maybe it’s just having somebody who can communicates with the family, even if they can’t tell them anything. But just somebody who can listen to their concerns and say ‘yes, they’re working on it. Here’s what I can tell you about what they did this week.’”

Almost half of missing indigenous people in Montana are under the age of 21. Bundy said runaways are a leading problem for many tribes. She aims to teach young people just how vulnerable they are, so more faces will not be added to the list of the missing.

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