Advocates of missing and murdered indigenous women set off on a four-day trek in northwest Montana Thursday to raise awareness for the disproportionate rates of violence against Native women and girls.
On asphalt and mud, grass and gravel, they walk.
The 15 people at the 3rd annual March to Honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women this morning, mostly women and children, have come to amble the length of the Flathead Reservation – north to south. And 80 miles is a long way on foot.
"It’s about healing," says Marita Growing Thunder, organizer of the event.
"We sacrifice ourselves for it. We talk amongst each other and tell our stories."
Growing Thunder is 20-years-old and a sophomore at the University of Montana. This is her third year making the walk. She says the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women touches nearly everyone in her community. She lost an aunt.
In Montana, dozens of Native women have gone missing or been murdered in recent years. No one knows the exact figures across the country since there’s no central tracking authority, but a report released late last year by the Urban Indian Health Institute says there were more than 5,000 cases in 2016 alone.
That report also says Montana has the fifth highest number of missing and murdered Native women in cities in the country – with most of those concentrated in Billings.
Today, attendees will walk south – as far as Polson.
"It’s exhausting, emotionally more so than it is physically," Growing Thunder says. "And I know it’s gonna be really hard tomorrow. And it’s gonna get even harder. But it must be done."
Growing Thunder says she wanted this year’s walk to honor a community member, 23-year-old Jermain Charlo from Dixon, who went missing last June. The UIHI study also says about 95 percent of cases like Charlo’s don’t get attention from major media outlets.
Today, friends and family of Charlo’s have shown up to walk along.
"This epidemic has affected my family, it’s affected our community," says Claire Charlo, Jermain Charlo's aunt. "It’s affected all indigenous women and families across the country and in Canada. So I’m here to walk."
Not everyone will walk the entire reservation. There’s a pilot car with water and supplies, taking tired walkers back to their vehicles. Some will leave early, and more will come to join in other sections of the journey. But all are here to show support.
As advocates walk the shoulder of the highway, the occasional passerby lets out a honk of solidarity.
Most of the people here today are adults, but I approach a group of three kids. I ask them what brought them here today.
"To show that we care. And, to show that we care!" says Josey Uscher.
"I’m 9-years-old, I’m gonna turn 10 in the summer."
As Growing Thunder, Uscher, Charlo and others walk, there are tears, smiles and embraces.
According to figures obtained by the Associated Press last year, the proportion of open cases for missing Native women was nearly twice their proportion in the overall population. And that’s likely a low estimate – management of these cases comes through a mish-mash of state, federal and tribal authorities. Many cases are misreported or not reported at all.
Earlier this week, Hanna’s Act – a bill that would have created a state justice department official to take on cases like Jermain Charlo’s – stalled in a committee in the state Senate. It was part of a package of bills addressing what some walkers today call an “epidemic.”
"I want her to know, and all the other women that are missing, that they’re not forgotten," says Naomi Robinson, who has known Charlo since she was a little girl. "And we aren’t gonna give up until they come home."
Growing Thunder says the journey – which is about the length of three marathons – is about hope and justice. She says they’ll reach the southern end of their walk on Sunday.