Save Our Sisters: MMIW Awareness Walk file

Marita Growing Thunder, left, leads a group of supporters for the second year on an 80-mile walk across the Flathead Indian Reservation in March 2019 to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. 

The mother of a 15-year-old girl who had been missing since April 10 praised law enforcement and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal police investigator for finding her daughter Sunday night.

"The CSKT and Lake County Law Enforcement were a huge help," Crystal Littleowl said in a message to the Missoulian. "One officer in particular, William Mesteth, helped a lot. As a mother, I'm relieved she is home safe."

Flathead Tribal Police Capt. Louis Fiddler said Tuesday this was a case of a runaway child, and that he's happy to have the report resolved.

"One of our officers Sunday night knocked on doors and talked to family members," he said. "She was found in good health."

Fiddler confirmed Mesteth, an investigator with the department, was the officer to locate Littleowl's daughter.

While this case involved a runaway, the missing person report still sparks the fear associated with missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, which is steady atop the priorities in Montana's Indian Country, from local levels to the state Legislature to a congressional hearing in December.

Tuesday also marks 10 months since 23-year-old CSKT member Jermain Charlo was reported missing; she was last seen in Missoula on June 16.

Roughly one-third of the 67 people listed on Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse, a list kept by the state Department of Justice, are Native American. That ratio is vastly disproportionate to the general state population, of which Native Americans make up 6.7%. Twenty-six percent of missing person reports from 2016 through 2018 were for Native Americans, the Billings Gazette reports

While law enforcement has been criticized in its response to missing indigenous people, from tribal to federal authorities, two teenage girls reported missing last week were effectively located safe and sound. While tribal police found Littleowl's daughter, the Lake County Sheriff's Office also located a 14-year-old girl on April 13 after she was reported missing and in possible danger there a day earlier.

In both cases, community awareness swelled through social media pages where authorities and advocacy groups deployed alerts. Briana Lamb is one of the administrators for the Montana Missing and Murdered Indigenous People page, which has been up and running for about a year. The post alerting its followers to the missing persons reports of the two teenage girls was shared more than 1,500 times.

"Social media has been a major part in bringing awareness to MMIW (missing murdered and indigenous women) itself, but it's also a huge catalyst for helping locate people," Lamb said. "There is definitely that personal connection in searching for these girls and being invested in their stories."

To say Lamb runs a Facebook page would be severely underplaying her role in the MMIW movement. She's been an advocate for bringing awareness to the issue for six years. She was also U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's guest to the State of Union earlier this year, and was a motivating factor for Tester to hold a congressional hearing on murdered and missing indigenous women. Both Tester and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines have since called for action on the epidemic. 

Lamb is invested in legislation currently in motion at the federal and state level, including Montana House Bill 21, also known as "Hanna's Act," which would create a Montana Department of Justice position to examine missing persons cases. Hanna's Act passed through the Senate on Tuesday, and will return to the House, where lawmakers will review its amendments.

Still, she said legislation is just one piece of the framework to solving that disproportionate list of missing persons across the Treasure State; community members, law enforcement from separate jurisdictional layers and everyone in between can help spark change, she said.

"Collectively, all of these pieces have to be in the puzzle for it to be whole and to be solved," she said. "Legislation will definitely help, but all across the board, there has to be work done."

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