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Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s March

Marchers fill the sidewalks along North 27th Street during the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s March in Billings on April 5.

The plight of missing Native American women can no longer be ignored. This crisis of disappearance, death and murder received long overdue attention with several bills introduced at the request of the Legislature's Interim State-Tribal Relations Committee.

Today, one of those bills, House Bill 21, known as "Hanna's Act" is scheduled for a final vote before heading to Gov. Steve Bullock's desk. Sponsored by Rep. Rae Peppers, R-Lame Deer, Hanna's act is named in memory of Hanna Harris, a young North Cheyenne woman who was missing for several days before she was found murdered.

Hanna's act passed the House Judiciary Committee and and the full House on unanimous votes back in February. But it ran into a roadblock in Senate Judiciary committee where its requirement that the Montana Department of Justice employ one investigator to work on missing persons cases was removed and its appropriation was stripped out. The bill was basically gutted. Hanna's Act was resurrected earlier this month in Senate Finance and Claims where ultimately the investigator requirement was restored and senators directed DOJ to cover the cost with its existing revenue, taking nothing from the state general fund. Senators also tied HB21 to Senate Bill 312, introduced by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, and cosponsored by Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. They amended Hanna's Act to say it would be void if SB312 failed.

SB312 proposes a grant program to help Montana tribal colleges establish an information network on missing persons. Small also proposed that a task force be created to oversee the grant program. Because Small's legislation banks on getting federal money, it has a general fund appropriation of only $25,000 to get the task force started. The Looping in Native Communities Network Grant Program received final legislative approval Thursday.

Peppers sponsored two other bills aimed at finding missing persons:

  • House Bill 20, which Bullock has already signed into law, clarifies that all law enforcement agencies in Montana are to accept missing children reports, including reports that may involve custodial interference and that agencies must gather information that may help in locating the missing child.
  • House Bill 54, which is en route to Bullock, requires that law enforcement agencies accept missing persons reports unless there are "extenuating reasons" not to, and that missing persons reports be entered into the national FBI database within two hours for people under age 21, within eight hours for persons 21 and older.

In SB312, Small pointed out that "the likelihood of finding a missing person decreases rapidly after the first 24 hours and falls to less than 4% after 72 hours." 

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This legislation and the debates it sparked during the past four months raised awareness in our state that Native American women are much more likely to be crime victims, more likely to go missing and less likely to be found than other Montanans. The Montana laws being enacted this spring won't immediately end the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, but they are good first steps toward the call to action included in SB312:

"In the absence of a federal solution, the Legislature of the state of Montana should take steps to identify and track Native men, women and children who are currently missing."

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