Tribes eye program to address missing Native Americans
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Native American tribe in Montana and federal prosecutors launched a test project Tuesday that they hope will lead to a blueprint for addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people across the U.S.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and U.S. Attorney for Montana Kurt Alme said the project will establish guidelines in collaboration with tribal governments, law enforcement and other partners. Lessons learned from the project will then be used to develop a draft plan that will be distributed to tribes across the U.S.
The pilot is part of a national effort to address the high rates of missing and slain Native Americans, who make up only 7% of Montana’s population but account for 25% of reported missing person cases, according to an August report by the Montana Department of Justice.
The project was announced during a council meeting of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation, one of seven reservations in Montana.
Craige Couture, police chief for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said his department, which includes tribal members, takes disappearances seriously and that collaboration with other law enforcement agencies has sometimes posed challenges. He hopes the pilot program will address those concerns.
Tribal police and investigators from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs generally serve as law enforcement on reservations, which are sovereign nations. But other federal and state law enforcement departments lead investigations in some cases.
“Sometimes as a tribal agency, when you call some of these other agencies, they don’t always listen to you,” Couture said. “This is an opportunity here to be taken seriously.”
The Salish and Kootenai Tribes will be joined by communities in Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Oregon that will each develop their own response plans tailored to the community’s needs. Alme said communities were selected for participation if they were on the forefront of addressing the crisis and able to participate safely given the COVID-19 crisis.
“The response to the missing and murdered Indigenous person issue is more than a law enforcement response. It takes an entire community’s response,” Alme said.
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said the project builds on previous efforts to address the missing persons crisis, which include establishing a working group in 2018 after the disappearance of tribal member Jermain Charlo, who still has not been found.
”Our community worked hard to elevate this issue so it is encouraging to see the effort continue to develop and grow,” Fyant said.
The new project comes after Attorney General William Barr’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, announced a year ago during a visit to the Flathead Reservation. The project is also aligned with Savanna’s Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in October. The legislation directs the Department of Justice to review, revise and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address the crisis.
Alme said Savanna’s Act ensures that once the pilot program is complete, tribal community response plans will be developed in Native American communities across the county.
On the Flathead Reservation, working group meetings with representatives from the U.S. attorney’s office, tribes, law enforcement and community organizations will begin next week to develop the plan, which will include guidelines for law enforcement agencies, victim services, community involvement and media and public communication. A draft plan will then go before the tribal council for approval.
The crisis is personal for tribal law enforcement, Couture said.
“When we have a case where somebody goes missing, it’s usually one of our staff’s family members,” Couture said. “You don’t know who the next missing person is going to be. It may be a cousin, it may be a mom, a dad, it may be a child.”
Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.