Organizers of the first tribunal to be held in the U.S. looking at the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women said Monday a record-breaking weekend snowstorm has not derailed their plans to hold the event Friday and Saturday in Browning.
At the tribunal, survivors and the families of victims will speak at a forum to provide public testimony that will be recorded. There will also be private sessions.
“We welcome witnesses from the Four Directions to attend and share their experiences. This is not just a Blackfeet or Montana tribes’ tragedy, it is an Indian Country tragedy, and a national and international disgrace," Tim Davis, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, said in a release announcing the tribunal.
Davis pointed to the close border and link between the two countries and sister tribes, the Piikani, Blood and Siksika, in Alberta, as something critical to examine in the tribunal.
“We are not divided by the border, we are united in our grief. Many women and children stolen from our communities are trafficked back and forth between the U.S. and Canada,” Davis said in the release.
MMIW issues have been heard in Congress this year, including testimony from Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner, the sister of Ashley Loring Heavy Runer, a woman who went missing from the Blackfeet reservation in 2017. But Davis said that Indigenous communities are still waiting for federal legislation, and he doesn't want the issue to get lost in the 2020 election cycle.
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"We cannot allow the MMIW legislation that is pending to be lost in the hubbub, and this tribunal will help to ensure that it isn’t,” Davis said.
Though Native people in Montana make up about 7% of the state's population, they account for 26% of the missing persons cases in the state.
During the 2019 Montana Legislature, a package of bills aimed to start addressing the problem. The main bill was Hanna's Act, named after Hanna Harris, a woman who was missing for several days before being found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013. The legislation created a missing persons specialist within the state Department of Justice. That position has been filled and a related MMIW task force held its second meeting in Billings last week.
The tribunal is being held with the Global Indigenous Council and is endorsed by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council. It will be at the Blackfeet Community College. Montana's congressional delegation, as well as members of the Trump administration and 2020 Democratic presidential candidates were invited, organizers said.
Other prominent Republicans, including Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman John Hoeven, of North Dakota, were also invited.
"This is a human rights issue. This is a life-or-death issue. This is not a right or left issue. No witness can express their experiences in five minutes in a congressional hearing. We invite the lawmakers to share their words with our people, but more importantly, to come and listen to the witnesses. That is the least the victims and their families deserve,” Davis said.