Indigenous Communities Discussion Panel

Moderator Melinda Adams reads a question from an audience member to panelists during a Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch conference. Panelists on the Indigenous Community discussion are from left, John Old Elk, Jami Pluff, Jennifer Smith, Reno Charette and Kathleen Little Leaf. 

When it comes to challenges facing the indigenous community and missing and murdered indigenous people, get involved, get educated, and be an advocate — especially if you’re not Native American.

That's the message panelists shared Thursday while discussing indigenous communities during the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch's day-long Communities in Crisis conference.

The first question asked during a panel on Indigenous communities was how non-Native people can be allies. The panelists filled an hour discussing possible answers. 

“From the tribal reservation to the non-Native communities. There’s a disconnect,” said panelist Kathleen Little Leaf, who is the Behavioral Health Coordinator at Billings Urban Indian Health.

Isolated reservations and a non-Native community that doesn’t also want to express interest can make it difficult for Natives to enact change, get help, or work within communities on pressing issues like murdered and missing indigenous people.

Jennifer Smith, Executive Director of Indian Education for the Billings Public Schools, also emphasized education and awareness for all children, but especially Natives.

“Right now, I could tell you 10 of our kids, we don’t know where they are, and that’s just off the top of my head, because they don’t have stable housing,” she said.

Everyone should take responsibility and speak up when something is wrong, she said.

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The divide between the two main races in Montana, Native and white, has made it difficult for Natives to get help when it’s most dire, panelists agreed.

Jami Pluff, policy analyst for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, pointed out the differences in how law enforcement respond to reports of missing white women versus missing Native women.

There is often a lag in response times, increasing the likelihood that the Native women will have already been murdered, trafficked, or never be found.

“If the non-Native community really wants to help, they really need to open their eyes to it and that it really does happen,” Pluff said. “Institutionalized racism is a reality. Native voices just aren’t heard.”

Recently a bill was signed into law in Montana to help streamline communication between law enforcement. Hanna’s Act was signed into law in May, creating a new position with the Department of Justice to track missing-persons cases and make sure searches for missing people start as quickly as possible.

Native Americans go missing and are murdered at far higher rates than non-Natives. In Montana, Native Americans are four times more likely to be victims of homicide than white residents of the state, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Native Americans also make up 26% of missing people reported in Montana, despite being only 6.7% of the state’s population.

In order to change that, more people need to get involved, the panel said. Smith urged people to attend Native American cultural events and issue meetings or just to ask questions. Making an effort at mutual understanding will help everyone, and will be the most effective tool in being an ally, she said.

"Questions are OK, even if you think they are stupid questions," Little Leaf said "Be able to get comfortable knowing that we also want that relationship too."

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