In the absence of action from the Montana Legislature, a Billings-based group representing Native American tribes in the state is requesting the governor convene a task force to find solutions to the alarming rate of missing and murdered Native Americans in the West.
The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which also represents several tribes in Wyoming and Idaho, sent a letter Monday to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, asking for an executive action in the wake of a state legislative panel tabling a measure central to a package of bills intended to address the issue.
The bill, dubbed “Hanna’s Act” in memory of a Northern Cheyenne woman murdered near Lame Deer in 2013, was defeated by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-5 vote. It would have created specialist within the state Department of Justice dedicated to pursuing cases of missing people. A proposed $100,000 in funding for the act had been previously stripped from the measure.
In the letter, the tribal leaders council quotes previous statements made earlier this year by Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney in support of more aggressively tackling the issue.
“Lt. Gov. Cooney also offered words that promised commitment to this tragedy which is devastating our communities, but in the weeks since, what has transpired has fallen short of those words and our expectations,” the letter states.
The letter is signed by Chairman Gerald Grey, of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, and tribal leaders council executive director Bill Snell.
“It was a surprising and somewhat shocking decision in regards to Hanna’s Act not being approved, which then really puts the efforts to (prevent) missing and murdered indigenous women in jeopardy,” Snell said Tuesday. “I think the implication is much greater than legislators realize. … The result of one missing person isn’t just one missing person. It has a resounding effect on all family members and relatives to that person.”
Native American women and children go missing at an alarming rate in Montana, and their families and investigators can spend years searching for them, sometimes to no avail.
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The letter includes a proposed executive action, which would create a task force comprising officials from each of the state’s tribes, representatives from tribal advocacy groups, a victim’s advocate, a mental health professional and an information technology expert.
Over a two-year period, the task force would formulate strategies to clarify jurisdictional roles among law enforcement agencies, improve data collection of missing and murdered people and establish “tribal liaison offices” that would allow community members to share confidential information about assaults and abductions without going to the police.
Tom Rodgers, an adviser to the tribal leaders council, rejected the idea that the legislators could not find $100,000 in the biennial budget to begin tackling the issue, as had been proposed in Hanna's Act.
”What we’ve seen is there’s been a lot of words but little or no action," Rodgers said. "We don’t trust words; we only trust action. And it is completely unacceptable to have $100,000 stripped from the bill.”
Snell said he did not have an estimate of the cost for the proposed executive action. But were it to be enacted, he said many of the costs would be borne by the tribes, while the council would ask the state to cover the cost of a liaison position.
The relative silence over the disappearance of two Native American women was Deborah Maytubee-Shipman’s call to action.