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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force up for renewal

Montana House of Representatives.
Montana Public Radio
Montana House of Representatives.

HELENA -- The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that would renew Montana’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force for another two years and add members from the Office of Public Instruction. The task force's goal is to navigate barriers between Federal, State, and Tribal governments when looking for missing people.

Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, is the sponsor of House Bill 163.

“As the elder once told me before, he said: ‘We are, we're not fighting hard enough for our women or our children.’ And I never understood what that meant because I always thought it was a physical fight. ‘Oh, I have got to go down there and knock this person around to take care of my daughter or my sister or my wife or somebody…’” Running Wolf said. “But actually, I'm not realizing it until I'm standing up here now that this is what it means to be fighting for our women and children and our loved and missing people.”

Thirteen proponents spoke in favor of the bill, saying addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Montana is crucially important, and the task force is a good model of how to respond. They said adding more representatives from organizations like the OPI would improve the program, especially because so many of the cases involve children.

According to Dana Toole with the Department of Justice, who spoke as a proponent of the bill, the program’s goals for 2022 are to increase the reporting of missing persons, improve tribal and community responses and engage youth.

Patrick Yawakie represented the Blackfeet Tribe and spoke in favor of the bill.

“Please support the task force by providing the resources needed in this collaboration so important data can be collected, shared, and can be used for more effective and efficient budgeting, planning, legislation, and educational materials. The reality of loved ones in a -- is a reality to many families and friends in Montana Indian Country,” Yawakie said.

According to the fiscal note on the bill, it would cost the state’s general fund $205,000 over the next two years to continue the task force.

No one opposed the bill at the hearing.

On average, Indigenous people arefour times as likely to go missing in Montana according to the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Reporting Portal created by the Blackfeet Community College. Forty-five indigenous people are missing in Montana right now -- 20 of whom have been missing for more than a year. Twenty-two are under the age of 18, the youngest of whom are two missing five-year-olds: Traton Boggs, who went missing on February 19th, 2022, and Arden Pepion who went missing on April 22nd, 2021. Any information on the disappearance of these children can be reported to Blackfeet Law Enforcement at (406) 338-4000.

This isn’t the only bill Running Wolf is sponsoring with the goal of strengthening Montana’s response to missing persons cases. He is also carrying House Bill 18, which would provide training for coordinated community searches during the most crucial times after someone’s disappearance. Running Wolf says the two bills would work hand-in-hand to help find missing people as soon as possible.

House Bill 18 passed unanimously through the House and will now be debated by the Senate.

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association, and the Greater Montana Foundation.

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