The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes kicked off a conference Tuesday on missing and murdered indigenous people (MMIP). The three-day event is aimed at raising awareness about the work being done to understand the scope of the issue both on the reservation and in the state.
This is the second conference the tribes have held this year since passing a resolution in January that created a local MMIP working group.
Jami Pluff is a member and an organizer of the MMIP conference this week. She says the event will focus on getting locals plugged into creating an action plan.
"I’ve been to a lot of MMW events, vigils, forums, and I think what we really want to focus on is what do we as a community do. How are we as a community going to create an action plan to move forward so we’re not leaving this conference saying, 'Ok, see you at the next one.'"
The sentiment that this wasn't just another conference was very real for many in the room who shared their experiences. Julian Draper was one of those people. She says she was sexually trafficked in Montana and was attracted to the conference because she wants actual change in the local community.
"The more this goes around, the more people come around and see what’s happening in the community, they’ll be more aware of what’s happening to the females and the people."
Pluff says some action is already being taken on the Flathead Reservation. The local working group will be speaking about physical and internet safety for at risk youth in schools this fall.
Data was also a large topic of discussion Tuesday and members of the Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse and a statewide task force were on hand to talk about the numbers. Currently, Native-Americans make up about a third of the 175 people in the state’s missing persons database.
However, that number is thought to be higher, something Pluff says is a result of racial misidentification.
"And so the data just really needs to be researched more to say, 'No, these are how many Native women are missing.'"
State Deputy Attorney General Melissa Schlichting sits on the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force. She says the group is working to foster better communication between tribal, state and federal partners in order to understand the full scope of the missing and murdered indigenous person issue in the state.
"That’s one of the primary responsibilities of the task force is to create a new network that will plug into our existing NCIC and missing persons clearinghouse so that we’re sure that we’re capturing all of the missing persons in Montana and we’re adequately addressing all of those issues."
Efforts to get an accurate historical count of missing and murdered indigenous women in Montana were reflected by over 100 paper bag luminaries in the back of the room. The names on the bags date back to the early 1900s.
Those bags signify the awareness that already exists in Indian Country, but those like Phaedrus Swab, who lives on the reservation, have their eyes on raising awareness outside of that bubble.
"It’s one thing to be able to express that voice within our bubble, but it’s another thing to be able to take that message and go outside where people are uncomfortable hearing it, and to me, that’s a good thing."
Swab and others' calls for action have been gaining traction. Four state laws surrounding missing and murdered indigenous people were passed this year and the state task force is due to submit a report to the Legislature with its recommendations for additional legislation the fall of 2020.